For Kyera Brown, self-induced pressure is her path to success.
“Personally I like to keep my grades up so I can go on and do more in life,” said the eighth-grader at Wilson Middle School in Carlisle.
Classmate Daymion Scott knows the challenge of balancing coursework with the demands of after-school basketball and cross country programs.
“It was hard to manage my time,” he said. “It was a big stressor.”
They have seen how the strain on other students can lead to depression, anxiety, apathy and negativity. A desire to change that is one reason they joined the Builders Club.
For months, club members have taken charge of an effort to accentuate the positive in the climate of the Wilson building. Theirs is a local response to a broader trend where youths are growing up so fast many experts worry about the long-term mental health effects.
Michael Perrott, president of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association, has 20 years of experience in public education, most recently in suburban Pittsburgh.
Perrott and his colleagues have noticed an increase in mental health diagnosis and needs in general among school-aged children in grades K-12. The increase affects every socioeconomic group no matter if it’s a public, private or parochial school.
While much of the trend is at the high school level, mental health issues are becoming more frequent at the middle school level with slight increases at the elementary school level, Perrott said. “Ten to 12 years ago, I would not see students in grades sixth, seventh and eighth.”
Typically, the issues involve depression, anxiety and difficulty maintaining concentration, Perrott said. There are substance abuse problems, with vaping emerging as a “new wrinkle” among high school and upper middle school students, he said.
“We’re seeing a lot of underlying depression,” said Johanna Jones, a counselor at Carlisle High School. She said a lot of the cases are not clinical in nature but involve teenagers struggling with day-to-day problems.
“The kids are trying to handle them as little bits and pieces instead of going to a doctor to look at it in a broader scope,” Jones said. She said all the pieces may fit together and eventually develop into a form of clinical depression.
While there has been an uptick in the number of cases involving attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Jones is not sure if it is due to more cases or better techniques of diagnosis. Much of the same could be said of other mental health issues affecting youths. What educators and experts are seeing is a change in the public perception of the problem.
“Mental health is starting to get painted in a better light,” said Joel Hain, principal of Boiling Springs High School. “Historically, it has always been something we don’t talk about.”
“I think we’re getting better at talking about these things,” said Doris Baboian, director of student services for the Cumberland Valley School District. “The stigma is still there, but at least we are starting a conversation.”
Pressure to stand out
Another trend Perrott sees is a ramp up in the level of pressure for students to excel in order to get into a competitive college.
“We are seeing some of that,” Jones said. “The pressure to get into college is greater. Colleges are looking for kids who are set apart from others. Every kid who applies to Penn State has a 3.7 average or higher. They have decent SAT scores. Every single one of their applicants is involved in activities. So what sets you apart?”
As a result, there is a push for students to take more challenging courses with greater academic rigor and heavier demands on their time.
“That’s great if the kid can handle it,” Jones said. But not every student can achieve a necessary balance to stand out enough. If other issues surface, the pressure could be too much.
“Every second of every day for many kids is structured,” Baboian said. “They don’t have as much down time, and when they do, they fill it with social media.”
Social media has its own set of issues.
“The kids are constantly bombarded with stimuli that make them question themselves and others,” said JoAnn Coslett, a psychologist at Cumberland Valley High School. “Where are they in the pecking order? Where are they in the academic ranking?”
Whether self-induced or external, the pressure to excel could drive feelings of not measuring up to an unrealistic or unreasonable standard.
“I’ve got to do it all, I’ve got to do it 200,000 percent,” Baboian said. “I could see it play out that way. I could see it evolve into an eating disorder or substance abuse.”
“We should be letting our kids be kids,” Coslett said.
One way to do that is to reframe the expectations around the reality of the future job market. There is an effort across Pennsylvania to make sure parents and students get a well-rounded perspective on the value of careers based on trades or technical skills, Perrott said.
“We all want what is best for our children,” he said.
The problem is many view college as the sole path to upward mobility and success when in reality colleges and universities are producing more graduates in certain fields than the job market demands. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of workers with trade or technical skills.
The result has been a generation of underemployed college graduates with minimal career prospects who are saddled with heavy debt. “We have done a lot to educate students and parents on what jobs will be there upon graduation,” Perrott said.