Today’s CBS Sunday Morning show had an episode: “Helping students cope with the pressure to succeed.”
Quick summary: Experts say that students from high achieving schools, who are privileged in terms of educational opportunities, are at greater risk of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety than the national norm, because of an unrelenting, insidious pressure to succeed. Correspondent Lee Cowan talks with students and a psychologist about how adolescent wellness is as vulnerable to academic pressure as it is to poverty, trauma, and discrimination.
Here is the full clip if you would like to watch the eight-minute episode. If you would prefer to just read a summary of the transcript, I have created a list of bullet points below the video.
- with record-low acceptance rates at top colleges, it’s pretty well-known that students feel pressured to out-compete each other. But what isn’t widely known is the toll that pressure can take.
- back in the ’90s psychologist Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University, was studying children struggling in low-income families, and she used as a control group students from more affluent schools – ones we generally think “have it all.” But they were suffering, too. “What do they all have in common?” “Unfortunately, what they all have in common is this unrelenting, insidious pressure to achieve and do evermore. Not even succeed, but it’s relentless, it’s keep succeeding.”
- the ripple effects of that unrelenting stress can be debilitating. Luthar spent more than two decades studying the problem. She consistently found that students from affluent schools are suffering from higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety – as much as three times the national norm.
- The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation now notes that excessive pressure to excel ranks right up with poverty, trauma, and discrimination as factors hurting adolescent wellness.
- many parents, even teachers, aren’t aware of just how much stress is hurting because many teens don’t talk about it … to anyone.
- Luthar’sadvice: “Have a conversation. And if your child does tell you, ‘I’m overwhelmed, I’m so anxious I can’t sleep, I’m terrified,’ that’s the time when you pull back. Ask your child.”
- the students indicated that the pressure is coming from parents, teachers, and themselves.
- one student noted: “It’s really trying to change the culture. It’s been, like, put into our minds when we were in kindergarten and first grade.”
- As students head off to college, they will be expecting even more of themselves. Luthar notes that’s admirable – as long as achievement isn’t the only measure of a young person’s worth.
- Luthar concludes: “I want to emphasize my message is not that kids should be told, ‘Don’t work hard.’ Absolutely not. Do work hard. [But] there is a point where we value your sanity and your well-being, and we are not willing to let that be compromised.”
Knowing all of this will be helpful when I meet a new group of college freshmen next week. I’ve had a sense that today’s students are under a lot of pressure, and COVID did not help matters (it didn’t make it necessarily worse – in fact, there was actually a short term benefit to students’ anxiety levels when COVID came along, but that benefit has faded away).
But this story brings the issue more into focus, and I will try to instill from day one the importance of stress management and make them aware of the resources we have available to them if they start to feel overwhelmed.
Knowing this also makes me feel bad. I remember college as being among the best four years of my life, and I always hope my students have the same experience. I don’t remember feeling stressed to the level that today’s students are experiencing.
As one of my colleagues noted, “Unfortunately, being a kid is not what it used to be.”
*image from Coppell Student Media