Trigger: The high school student mental health epidemic

ARTWORK BY TYLER FATA

The brain. It is the most important organ in the body. It is the center of all bodily functions, information intake, and regulation of hormones. It is also being directly damaged by the environment that American schools are creating. The modern American education system has proven time and time again it is unable to properly support and educate it’s students. From the toxic learning environment to the lack of training in the staff to the unrealistic standards most students are held up to, it is an inevitable failure.

To understand how America has reached the devastating educational state it is in today, one must understand how it came to be. According to an article published by gettingsmart.com, the first public schools began opening in the 19th century, the exact same time the industrial revolution began in America. The new demand for factory workers in the industrialized North began drawing in younger and younger workers from the cities. These workers were coming in untrained and unbroken, and the factory owners began looking for a way to train mass amounts of young workers to work in the typical Ford- style factory model. Public schools were the answer. Schools were built with single large rooms, neat rows of desks, and one supervisor to teach dozens of students at a time. Not very different from the model used today. This design was created to create robot- like workers, synonymous movements and thinking processes.

This format may  have produced the optimal workforce nearly two centuries ago, but times have changed. The workforce that children are being prepared for has changed. The Ford-style production lines where individuality is seen as a flaw have changed. Now these lines have bent, shifted, twisted, and disappeared completely in certain environments. According to reed.co.uk, some of the most marketable traits potential employers look for include “creativity, empathy, adaptability, and confidence.” These traits were specifically targeted and repressed in the early schools of America. Factory owners wanted workers who could follow basic instructions to complete a single job in an unchanging environment, and the schools would prepare children for this. America has changed in the past two centuries in unmeasurable amounts. We have progressed into new fields that our predecessors could never have dreamed of, have experienced radical societal change, and have grown as a nation. One might then begin to wonder why the classroom, the nursery for future generations’ greatest minds, hasn’t.

With an understanding of the way that American schools have failed to adapt to modern American society, it is no surprise there is a myriad of instances in which students are left feeling helpless and alone. The effects of the school environment on students is not easily missed. According to a study done by nami.org, one in five high schoolers ages 13-18 have experienced a serious mental disorder at some point. This is an 18.1% increase in just over five years. The rates have been noted to be higher in affluent suburban communities.

These trends are noticeable all over the United States in every kind of school from sea to shining sea. Elizabeth Pitzer is a junior attending a private school in Ohio. She is a highly involved, high achieving student. She attends honors classes, plays the violin in her school orchestra, and has a passion for art. She cited school as initially having a positive impact on her life.

“Academia has always been my greatest source of validation. People told me I was extraordinary for completing ordinary work, and I believed them,” Pitzer said.

Pitzer continued to explain that the school experience changed for her as she moved into higher levels of education.

“I have watched myself and others like me change radically due to the social pressures, academic requirements, and rigid nature of day-to-day school life. Someone I once knew, a fellow violinist, buckled under the pressures of her expectations and took her life. Physically, I have lost my resilience after nights and nights of working past midnight. Mentally, I have lost confidence and self-esteem not only from comparing myself to others, but comparing my current self to my past achievements. It makes me wonder how I could be working harder than ever before and yet continually get worse?”

According to Pitzer, the private school structure has seemingly unattainable standards set for it’s students. She is not alone in this thinking. An article published by the Washington Post discusses in depth how several schools are guilty of  underestimating their students. Underestimating the range of topics they are able to comprehend, the level of interest they can invest in a subject, and the maturity they can act with. This kind of underestimating results in education failings such as standardized testing. The dangerous assumption that every student is able to learn and apply the same information leads to the extermination of students who are unable to meet this impossible standard. It is not a sudden extermination, but a slow and painful death in regards to education. These students are left unnoticed and uncared for because of their unique talents and passions that do not fit into the American school model. Students who find their talents in the arts or other physical divisions have an extreme disadvantage in situations like standardized testing. They are forced to work harder than those naturally gifted in academics to meet a basic average. They never get a reasonable chance to display their other talents.

Junior Emma Hartjes shares her own story of struggling to meet the average. A story that lead her down a dark path that she struggles with to this day. Hartjes attends a Christian school in Wisconsin. Hartjes began by recounting the hostile environment fostered in the hallways. She compared teenagers to animals. That they are only searching for a way to survive the day and that they will do so any way they can.

“Sometimes you just want to hit pause on life, but that is impossible,” Hartjes said.

Hartjes recounted how she first began self-harming. She was being harassed by fellow students and was under immense pressures from her school workload. Teachers would push her too much in class and school became a source of constant pain.

“I began self-harming daily, usually in the morning. It was satisfying to know I was the only one hurting myself because if I hurt myself then no one else could,” Hartjes said. “I then abandoned hope for a pause button. I looked for ‘end game’.”

Hartjes cited her peers in school and her difficult classes as the main causes of her destructive tendencies. She talked about how she had difficulty learning in the school environment and her classes were not challenging or educational, but only made her feel left behind and lost. Her counselor could not connect with her either, as “she only looked for a way “to fix me.”

Hartjes then drafted a suicide note. While she made no attempt on her life, Hartjes was hospitalized against her will for a week.

“I told my family and the therapist how scared I was, that I didn’t want to go, but they wouldn’t listen. They threatened to call a cop, so I ended up going,” Hartjes said. “The hospital itself was terrifying. Imagine American Horror Story: Asylum.”

After that Hartjes explained how the school environment did not relent on her.

“I resorted to lying. I burned all evidence of my depression. It’s so easy to lie about your mental health, especially to protect yourself,” Hartjes said. “Teenagers joke about mental health all of the time to make light of it, to make it less painful and protect themselves.”

Hartjes went on to discuss the distrust between herself and teachers. How she felt the staff “saw her as a liability,” in regards to mental health. This polarizing disconnect between staff and students is not just found in Christian schools in Wisconsin.


“I began self-harming daily, usually in the morning. It was satisfying to know I was the only one hurting myself because if I hurt myself then no one else could. I then abandoned hope for a pause button. I looked for ‘end game’.”


Lyndee Elliott is a junior who attends public school in Illinois. Even though she attends a very different school than Hartjes, her story echos the same sorrowful and dejected notes. Elliott once saw herself as an outgoing, high achieving student. However, recent years have weighed heavily on her shoulders. Elliott was diagnosed with depression and struggles to thrive in the school environment.

“I feel as if the staff will think I’m lying or exaggerating when I discuss my mental health. In the past this has been the case when I talk with adults,” Elliott said.

Elliott’s experience in school extends to a fear of going to school everyday. School refusal is a behavior common in students suffering from anxiety or depression. The fear stems from the immense pressures of academic success and societal norms.

“I fear walking into school because anything could easily trigger a panic attack. Tests, homework, and presentations are like walking on eggshells for me,” Elliott said.

In response to this, Oswego East counselor Michelle Nevarez noted the epidemic levels of student hospitalization she has seen this year alone. Fifty students. Fifty students this semester alone have been removed from school because they were hospitalized for mental health reasons.

Nevarez stated that in her belief, however, that the blame should be placed more heavily on the social media that students are connected to 24/7. That the standards they hold themselves up to are inhuman social media stars whose physique and lifestyle are unattainable to most teenagers.

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Artwork by Tyler Fata

It is without a doubt that the American educational system is failing its students. With an outdated model it is the very people who should be profiting the most that are being victimized. Students all across America, all across school types, are crippling under the weight school is putting on them. School has morphed from a way for young scholars to pursue knowledge and become an educated citizen into weighted shackles on the next generation of Americans. It is undoubtedly in need of reformation in order to address the damage it is doing on students as well as adapt to the new American society.

In order to succeed, modern schools must change from uniform environments to diverse and open domains full of extracurriculars. They also must nurture the relationship, trust, and respect between the students and staff. In order to encourage real communication between the students and staff, the students must feel comfortable opening up and discussing serious personal topics without fear of dismissal. Standardized testing should also be abolished within the classroom. Students must be able to pursue unique and individual paths of learning in order to realize their own potential rather than chase an “average” that is impossible for them to reach. The average which is a stellar student who can handle the long hours in fluorescent-lit rooms to go home to hours poring over textbooks and sitting in front of their computer open to Google Docs. The average which is able to put aside their own personal needs to prioritize their school work. A school environment must be created where this average is not seen as normal.  This type of schooling is not impossible, the Finnish school model supports all of these characteristics and is ranked the second country in the world for education. America is ranked fourteenth. Unlike America, Finnish schools only require one standardized test for primary and secondary school. They also assign less homework — a mere 2.8 hours every weekend compared to America’s 6.1.

America is in a hole when it comes to education. Students are suffering, and the old models have finally failed. But America does not need a complete educational makeover. All it needs is reformation. Adoption of successful techniques from other countries to start helping it’s students. In opening our minds to adapting new models for schooling, students may be relieved of a significant burden and be allowed to flourish rather than be repressed.

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