Mental health policy at PHS

The kids aren’t alright

By Sam Brennan, Miloš Šeškar

After last year’s Stanford Survey, student stress, induced by both the rigor of academics and the emphasis on extracurriculars, has been a topic of controversy at PHS. The figures that were unveiled by the survey troubled many, as they exposed the high levels of stress as reported by students. Although that survey was conducted midway through last year, the culture of anxiety and competition remains just as strong, in spite of recent policy changes to improve the mental health of students at PHS. This is not for a lack of effort on the part of the administration. Rather, the administration has been hard at work trying to implement measures to help students cope and deal with stress.

graphic by Eman Shamshad

The implementation of various policies to reduce stress, such as the new initiative for next year’s hybrid scheduling, only side-step the deeper issue. The issue resides not in school policy, but the overall culture that prevails in our community concerning academics. As Benoit Denizet-Lewis writes in The New York Times Magazine, a consensus amongst experts in adolescent anxiety has arisen that the primary causes of student stress lies in social media and deeply internalized notions of success. Students are pressured by their parents and themselves to take on unreasonable workloads that set them up for overwhelming stress.

PHS is ranked the sixth-best public school in NJ by the U.S. News & World Report, and has a 79 percent AP course participation rate. Like other high-performing public high schools, a culture of expected academic perfection has become standard. While it’s not bad to have highly motivated students, there is a problem with over-competitiveness. The combination of excessive AP and accelerated classes, along with extracurriculars and sports, has become commonplace amongst students who have committed to unreasonable schedules and obligations that they cannot physically meet. It has been all too common to see fellow students who are taking six AP classes in a single year. AP classes have deviated from their intention — to give students who are advanced or proficient in some areas the opportunity to explore those fields in a more rigorous setting — and instead have become just another tally mark for ever-competitive students to notch on their college application.

Of course, students at PHS do not take the same courses, extracurriculars, or have the same home life as one another. We all experience stress in different forms and from different sources, so there is no blanket policy that the administration can put in effect that would solve every individual’s problems. Sometimes, the culture that we come from demands more from us as students, or as athletes. It demands that everyone be “good” at something, or at the very least, “well-rounded.”  But not all of us are driven computer programmers, or public speakers-and-debaters, or linguistically gifted, and very, very few of us are all three of those things. The administration has implemented many policies in order to reduce and counter stress, including therapy dogs and homework-free weekends, but there is not much that it can do without failing to meet state standards for education. Sometimes we have to endure things in life that are stressful and difficult.  Administrative policy is an ineffective instrument to deal with what will always be a stressful endeavor — the high school journey.

Policy matters

By Jonathan Lin, Aurora Yuan

Mental health continues to be a prevalent and concerning issue at PHS. Student stress remains pervasive in the halls and classrooms of PHS, as well as at home. In fact, last year’s Stanford survey found that 81 percent of PHS students reported being often or always stressed by schoolwork. Consequently, PHS has begun to experiment with solutions to alleviate this burdening pressure. These efforts are clearly taking the school in the right direction in addressing the mental health of students.

photo by Aaron Wu

Some change has been targeted at giving students more of a say in the learning process. For example, the math department has adopted a new homework policy which helps to reduce homework stress. With this new system, homework does not count towards quarter grades. Instead, doing a certain amount of assignments allows for one assessment to be dropped or retaken. This places more personal responsibility and flexibility into our hands. Implementing policies like this is crucial in PHS, since Stanford’s Challenge Success Survey indicates that PHS students average 3.12 hours of schoolwork on weeknights — and that’s not including time spent on extracurriculars. Giving students leeway with homework  enables us to manage a more personalized balance of time that fits our changing and bustling schedules.

In addition to this, the school has also considered hybrid schedule that allows for more uninterrupted time to teach. With more focused time in class, students will be able to accomplish more and go home with a smaller workload. The schedule also provides a longer break on two days of the week as well as more time between classes. Free time during school allows us to decompress and relax before heading off to the next class.

Lastly, PHS is also looking towards a later start time. This change would actually conform to the naturally changing sleep habits of adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that later school start times result in decreased levels of stress, better performance in school, and an overall increase in the students’ quality of life. It should therefore seem intuitive that the policy changes that PHS is putting forth are a significant leap towards improving the mental health of students.

Such changes in school policy are critical to the health and well-being of students. These reforms will enhance our rich learning environment while also reducing the stress and burdens of school. In addition, by bringing these policies and this discussion into the limelight, the faculty, administration, and the students are driving even more dialogue about the future of mental health at PHS, creating a stepping stone towards further progress. Therefore, these changes to school policy are critical in improving the state of mental health in our school.

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