arts & creativity, cultural issues, mental health & wellness

A Stressful "Race to Nowhere"

Coincidentally, last week I wound up watching 2 documentaries about stress in one day: a documentary called “Stress: Portrait of a Killer” for my Health Psychology class and a popular documentary called “Race to Nowhere” at a showing on campus. Here’s the trailer for the latter: 
According to the film’s website: “Featuring the heartbreaking stories of students across the country who have been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing, and the relentless pressure to achieve, ‘Race to Nowhere’ points to a silent epidemic in our schools.”
Actually, it points to a lot of silent epidemics. Because of pressure to achieve, students from kindergarten to college can and do experience (to name just a little):
  • academically: test anxiety, procrastination, plagiarism
  • emotionally: anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation or action
  • physically: stomach aches, headaches, sleep disorders, eating disorders, substance use and abuse
  • socially: competitiveness against peers rather than camaraderie among peers, withdrawal from peers
Remarkably, “Race to Nowhere” touches on all of these topics and more in just an hour and a half, featuring numerous students, parents, teachers, administrators, and clinical psychologists. That’s the exact reason that I would recommend this film to anyone and everyone — especially anyone who’s in, around, or interested in what one article called “the high-pressure world of upper middle class parents and their children, a place where depression, anger, and emptiness are considered a fair trade-off for a shot at the Ivy League.”
I’ve been in that environment since I was 10 years old — from 8 years at a competitive college prep school to 4 years at a highly-ranked university, not to mention a couple summers attending plus a couple summers staffing a summer camp for gifted adolescents.
All of those places have been stressful to some extent. From 8th-12th grades, for example, I got around 5-6 hours of sleep (whereas adolescents need around 8-9) and had fairly frequent headaches. And in college, I’ve sometimes kept an unnecessarily close watch on how high my GPA is and how impressive my resume/CV looks. 
But all of those places have also provided examples of how to reduce collective stress levels, many of which are specifically encouraged in “Race to Nowhere.” For example:
  • use block scheduling, in which students go to each class every other day rather than every day, thus not having to do homework for every class every day 
  • occasionally have a “No Homework Day” or “No Homework Weekend”
  • start the school day a little later  
  • provide (and promote!) multiple resources for who to contact in case of distress, such as homeroom teachers, school counselors, and school nurses in grade school or campus counseling centers, campus health centers, campus ministers, RAs, and peer leaders in college 
I’m thankful to my former and current schools for taking some of these approaches and hope many more schools will do so as well. But, no matter how many stress-relieving strategies get implemented, pressure to perform academically has deep cultural roots, and we need to tell ourselves and other students: “You are not your grades. You are not your SAT, GRE, MCAT, or LSAT scores. You have far more personality than that, and your personality will remain forever no matter what some one-time teacher, judge, or acceptance letter says.”   

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