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What’s to lose in the quest for overachievement? The ‘devastating’ amount of stress in schools today

Steven S. | Flickr | http://bit.ly/1Qo19ck
The push for overachievement can have a vast impact on students' mental health.

Earlier this year, the work of Dr. Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician and associate dean for curriculum at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, was featured in a New York Times opinion piece on the stress of students today. Slavin found through an anonymous study at a high school in California that 54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression.

That wasn’t all. Eighty percent of students suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety. Slavin now contends that students’ (and parents’) quest for over-achievement and stress in school has ‘disastrous’ ramifications for their mental health. He has also turned an eye to his own practice at the medical school, redesigning its curriculum to reduce stress and anxiety among future doctors (a profession known for the toll stress takes). 

Pressure to overachieve

"We're seeing a frankly devastating impact on mental health and well-being of kids in grade-school [K-12] due to pressure they're facing,” Slavin told host Don Marsh on Tuesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” describing how piles of homework, extracurricular activities, AP classes and more can actually be making kids sick.

"They believe if they don't go to Stanford or Berkeley, that their life is forever compromised."

Slavin said that parents, especially ones who lived through the anxiety-inducing recession, are the original perpetrators of such overachievement pressure, followed by teachers and administrators. Students eventually internalize the pressure to get the best grades, get into the best school and make the most money…which can result in anxiety and depression.

“They believe if they don't go to Stanford or Berkeley, that their life is forever compromised,” said Slavin. “They are flat-out wrong about that.”

Massive amounts of homework (two, three or more hours per night) at inappropriate ages (second and third grade) are more and more common, Slavin said. One caller said he was a student at St. Louis College of Pharmacy and he was utterly taken aback to find out that his fourth grade sister is more stressed out by the amount of schoolwork she has than he is.

“We have this fundamental belief that more means better outcomes,” said Slavin. “At a certain point, you have diminishing returns.”

Even though you’d think the idea of giving less homework would please high schoolers, Slavin said that teenagers are, in fact, very afraid of giving up this mode of life. “They believe this is the path to success," he said. “Backing off does not mean you accept lower standards.”

Slavin believes that depression and anxiety due to school is not researched across the country because high schools don’t want to be associated with stressing their students out beyond the pale. In 2014, however, 11 percent of teens in the U.S. suffered from a major depressive episode and many aren’t being treated, he said.

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Stuart Slavin

In addition to overachievement stress, students are also impacted by losing sleep due to staying up late to finish homework and extracurricular activities (which are necessary to get into top universities). Behavior begins to fall apart and teens become more moody and sensitive to life’s challenges. Slavin say that parents need to be aware if they sees these symptoms in their kids that it is not the child’s fault — expectation may just be placed far too high.

What’s to be done?

The best education system in the world right now is considered to be Finland, said Slavin, which has a maximum of 30 minutes of homework given to children per night. He said the U.S. has a lot to learn from such a system.

The impact of student stress has been obvious in Slavin’s own work as the associate dean for curriculum at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. That’s why he began cutting back curricular requirements for the medical school, amount of homework, and added stress-reducing resources for students. The rates of depression at the medical school dropped from 27 percent to 4 percent once the changes were instituted.

“Key among this is that test scores have gone up, not down,” Slavin said. “They are learning more now.”

Reducing homework and obligations does not lead to lower performance, Slavin reiterated.

"Getting help from others is not a sign of weakness."

“It costs virtually nothing to make these changes,” Slavin said. “The entire budget for stress-reducing activities is $5,000 per year.”

Slavin believes other medical schools are starting to adopt such policies of their own. He says it requires a perspective shift from students, too. They have to learn that destressing and taking care of their lives actually help them perform better academically.

“Getting help from others is not a sign of weakness,” Slavin said. “It is a sign of courage.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.