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Exam Stress and Students' Mental Health

22/05/18

Exam period is in full swing, which means that some students might be getting overwhelmed by workload. It is crucial to recognise early signs of stress and help students with realising that mental health is as important as physical health.

Exams have started, teachers and students are beginning to feel stressed. Have the students revised enough? Have they completed enough coursework? How will they perform on the day? Students, on the other hand, have on average eight exams to worry about, so their stress level is eight times greater. Combine that with the high expectations placed on a ‘Straight A’ student; the stress and strain are tremendous.

I am always mindful of stress at this time of year because I have personally witnessed mental breakdowns, hospitalisation and self-harming in my classroom. Statistically, it has been proven that mental health disintegration amongst the young is increasing and it is happening right in front of my eyes.

There is an additional pressure on students to get the highest grade possible but the highest grade is becoming harder to achieve due to new grading systems. The new 9-1 number grading system has replaced the traditional A-G letter system and a 9 grade is equivalent to an A**. In my own subject, Art, to achieve the top grade the student would have to produce artwork outside of the classroom on a daily basis. The artwork needs to be refined, annotated, evaluated and then redone using a different technique and linked to an artist’s style. This cycle is repeated constantly to encourage students to experiment, to refine, to discover new techniques / styles and finally, to get ready for two ten hour exams.

Students I am most concerned about are those who have achieved high grades in all subjects because of constant ‘pushing’ from the school and from themselves. The school naturally wants students to have good grades and students want them either for a place at college / university or simply because it is expected of them. At this stage, students become very vulnerable and I know this through personal experience.

One student was hospitalised for months because of the extensive workload, another ‘Straight A’ student’s grades were falling as she struggled to complete the increasing workload of eight subjects, leading to a partial mental breakdown. More recently, a student cut the length of her arm with a craft knife because a career officer said her work was not good enough to get a good grade, and therefore she would not get the job she wanted.

In all these cases, I am proud to say that my interventions meant that all three students did eventually get a good grade. These are the ‘successes’ but unfortunately, I also knew of a student where the pressure to ‘succeed’ resulted in her taking her own life.

How do I help?

I do many things this time of year but my priority is to de-stress my students who are taking their final exams.

• I ask them if they are ok or if they are worried about any aspects of the exam. I reassure them to do the best they can at this given time.

• Encourage them to talk. Being tearful or despondent could be signs of not coping. Look for any unusual behaviour.

• Keeping communication open, being approachable and sympathetic is important.

• If they are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work, I encourage them to prioritise and tak regular breaks.

• I also suggest after school clubs and lunchtime clubs. Those are great places for them to unwind and relax between studying.

• I make sure that they have all the resources and help.

• The most important advice is to make sure that all relevant school parties are aware of the situation at the earliest opportunity. A collective and supportive response is vital and could save a life.

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