How academic pressures affect student’s mental health


Lucas Lombana Arias

Neuqua students cram the 95th Street Library to study for finals this week.

Lucas Lombana Arias, Staff Writer

This story was pitched near the beginning of October. However, the first draft wasn’t started until the middle of November. Ironically, the reason this article’s publication was so delayed was due to my academic pressures and mental health problems.

Every day, our adviser Mr. Verdin would go up to me to check my progress on this article, and every day I would look up from my mess of homework papers to tell him I was busy with other assignments. My friend, who was in the same situation, joked, saying I was “researching” for this Academic Pressures article.

I’ve been in the district’s Advanced Programs my entire life. I’m currently taking all Honors and AP classes and was part of the Project Arrow program through all of middle school and the gifted classes in elementary school. The majority of my friends are the kids in these classes, ultimately creating a culture of extreme academic pressure to succeed in school. You get a couple B’s? You’ve fallen behind all your peers. You aren’t the top of your class? You are a failure. You aren’t the president of 3 clubs, a double varsity athlete and also the inventor of cure to cancer? You aren’t getting into the top colleges now. Our self worth is tied to our grades, intertwined in such a way that if one fails, so does the other. 

A group of students in the library studying for finals. (Lucas Lombana Arias)

We need to be the best of the best. We need to get into the top colleges. We need to show that we are better than average in everything we do, else our illusion of perfection is broken. On top of our all Honors and AP course load, it’s expected that we do several clubs, sports and other extracurriculars. It’s our junior year, so we also have to fit in time every day to study for the SAT and ACT. This rigor is shared by most of our friends in the same situation. 

These pressures come from all over. Validation from family, college applications and academic status with other students, were all reasons we heard from other students. Another big factor mentioned was that college-prep classes were not challenging enough for students, and they felt they would learn better in Honors/AP classes with students similar to them. 

But there was one thing that particularly stood out to me among all the responses: they highlighted a concerning trend regarding the academic culture at a top school like Neuqua. Getting amazing grades is seen as the norm and is expected from all students to a point that “average” grades are seen as “bad.” Although it does foster very capable students, many succumb to the pressure and high expectations set by the school, their parents and other students. 

There is hardly ever a week that we get a full night’s worth of sleep:

Nathan Zhang, junior, taking a quick nap after an exhausting study session. (Lucas Lombana Arias)

“I have to manage Speech Team, four AP classes, two Honors classes and a part-time job from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. I only get five hours of sleep, and it’s tough, but it’s what I have to do to keep up. I’m too scared to talk to some teachers because I’m too scared of rejection, you know, like there’s no point in asking. I feel like they just don’t understand how much work I have outside their class.” – Amartya Nalluri, Junior

“I’ve slept less than four hours every night in the past two weeks. I get home from soccer, and I work until 10 p.m., and there isn’t enough time to finish my homework. I’ve had to miss part of school just to complete homework. ” – Reagan Rushing, Junior

“Monday I got, what, two hours of sleep? After that, I had to pull three all-nighters in a row. It’s Friday, and I’ve only gotten five hours of sleep total this week. I just can’t keep up with the amount of work I’m committed to.” – Daksh Shandilya, Junior

“I get a boatload of homework, and it’s hard to get all that done because I have practice right after school. I’m going to bed late and waking up early, and everyone knows sleep affects your mental health. Some teachers are completely unaware of what students have after school, assigning a bunch of homework and tests. I would appreciate it if teachers gave optional study guides when we have to take mental health days.” – Jacob Nauman, Senior

“My teachers are cramming in so many projects and tests just before finals. They need to ask themselves if what they’re assigning is actually helping students learn, or if it’s just busywork, time-consuming, stressful and burdensome.” – Ryan Wang, Junior

“The academic culture at our school, especially within the Honors and AP classes, is very competitive and sometimes toxic. The sheer amount of homework to complete and balancing that with Cross Country is just not always physically possible. Like if I’m stressed about school and haven’t gotten enough sleep, that’s all I can think about and the workout is going to suck.” – Alex Herrera, Junior

And there is hardly ever a week that we don’t see someone visibly struggling with mental health and the pressures from school:

“The majority of the people I know have at least some mental health issues. It obviously takes a toll on you to maintain your grades when a single test score can bring your grade down so much. It affects my sleep schedule and I sometimes feel exhausted due to the workload.” – Aidan Kunimara, Junior

“Academic pressure and my performance in school have a direct correlation to my mental health. The issue isn’t that the connection exists, but it’s problematic how much control the school has over students’ well-being. I think some teachers have unrealistic expectations of their students to prioritize their class as their only one. I have really high expectations and ambitions for myself, so when I don’t meet them it can be stressful. ” – Sarah Chow, Junior

“I see my friends stressed out about tests and homework. They’re always someone trying to get homework done before school starts.” – Tony Pastore, Sophomore

Sunny Li, senior, stresses over his Calc III final and AP Literature essay during lunch. (Lucas Lombana Arias)

“I feel like the only way I can be satisfied with my life is doing well in school. Throughout my life, I’ve been told the key to happiness is through education and hard work. Unfortunately, striving for that validation comes at the expense of other things that make me happy, like hanging out with friends or my hobbies.” – Victoria Yin, Junior 

“I feel like I am defined by my grades and GPA to the point that any blunder I make is a complete failure and fully reflects me as a person. It’s really about the culture within Neuqua to succeed and expectations from our friends and family. When all you see around is success, you may feel left behind when you don’t succeed as well.” – Josh Liu, Junior

“My academic performance does affect my mental health. It’s the pressure to keep my grades up and find a way to stand out amongst my peers because I have a fear of not getting into the college I want. It motivates me to do better, but it makes me feel like I would be considered ‘worthless’ or ‘not good enough’ if I don’t excel academically.” – Elaine Huang, Junior

“The daily routine of rigorous classes plus the stress of college apps can make everything more stressful. It can bring anxiety sometimes, making it difficult to concentrate sometimes, as well as there being times making it difficult to sleep. The competitive environment at Neuqua causes a lot of my friends to be in a similar situation. ” – Alex Del Genio, Senior 

“If I have one late assignment, I see that as a personal failure. Teachers should reach out to students and help when they notice a sudden disinterest. Not just say ‘hey these assignments are missing’ but to check in and make sure we’re ok. The school could provide routine check-ins and the mental professionals can help students manage any stress or mental health concerns. ” – Clare Malloy, Senior

“Lucas [the writer of this article] and I have brought this to the attention of the board, and I have gotten a few inputs from students in each grade. We all say the same thing: mental health should be the main priority of all schools. We shouldn’t have a 300:1 ratio of students to counselors. Let’s see some change.” – Sarina Diaz, Senior

“It’s so draining and demoralizing to see other people soar high above you in classes, clubs, sports, whatever. Neuqua is a top school, and combined with me associating with generally very smart people, being brought up in gifted programs and stereotypical Asian emphasis on academics, I’ve ended up largely defining my self-worth by my performance in school. I think teachers often fail to consider that I am taking seven classes, not one.” – Ethan Lopez, Junior 

The current environment in our school is not the administrators, social workers or school counselors’ fault. The school does the best it can with the resources they are given. However, there is a culture against talking to the counselor and a stigma against mental health which leads to students not being comfortable going to the school resources. Ask most high schoolers, and their first instinct when they have a mental health problem is not to go to the social worker to talk it out.

The school counselors and social workers are mandated reporters. This means that if they think that you are in danger of hurting yourself, they are required by law to report it. Since it is the social workers that decide whether or not someone is in danger, it demoralizes students to talk openly about their emotions in fear of it becoming a much bigger problem. If students aren’t comfortable going to their parents about their problems, why would they be comfortable going to someone they believe will tell their parents about those problems?

I feel like that brings us to the biggest question of all: what can we all do about all these problems? How can we make change that works for students, teachers and counselors? It’s such a difficult question to answer, and no clear solution is available to address the systemic issues that have been deeply rooted in Neuqua’s academic culture. The school does have resources and programs in an attempt to alleviate stress in students, but a lot of people don’t see the point to them. 

For example, many students feel as if the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) lessons are performative. We are glad the school is doing something, but it feels like students’ mental health should be a student-centered topic rather than a PE teacher’s lecture.

And having only 3 counselors per grade of 900 students is not enough. Sometimes students go to the office, and there isn’t help available when they need it most. However, this shortage of professional help is a national problem, so the school needs to look into other ways to help provide for its students. 

Obviously, mental health issues are not solely caused by Neuqua’s environment, but it does clearly play a big role. It isn’t something that can be changed overnight, or even in a school year. But everyone can do their part in helping our school heal and have the best learning environment possible.

School administrators, we know that you are doing your best with the resources you have been given. Making those resources more widely available, more easily accessible and less frightening will help students feel more comfortable knowing that the school cares about them. 

Teachers, we know that the curriculum demands you to ask a lot out of your students. We know that you know that your students are under tremendous pressure. Not just from school, but pressure from all aspects of your lives. Sometimes students simply don’t feel comfortable telling you about their problems; this isn’t a problem with self-advocacy or that they do not enjoy your class. Don’t be so harsh when we fail or come to you for help. Although it is not in the job application to be a mental health specialist, please be understanding and kind with your students because you never know the full extent of what goes on outside of your classroom.

And students, you are loved and cared for. No matter what level classes you take, no matter what your grades look like, no matter what college you get into, you are loved. Teachers may appear cruel by assigning so much work, but they do it because they want you to succeed. Have a good relationship with your teacher; it goes a long way. Check up on your friends, even if you don’t see them visibly struggling. Sometimes only another student can relate to the problems they are going through.

Neuqua, you are good enough.