Parents and officials should not overreact to a sweeping survey that found Toronto students – especially high-school students – are experiencing high levels of stress, are worried about the future and sometimes “feel like crying.”
To be sure, the survey of 103,000 students between grades 7 and 12 may suggest there is cause for concern, and it could be a wake-up call to prompt parents to pay attention to how their children are coping with their lives. But the survey of the emotional and social well-being of students is the first of its kind by the Toronto District School Board, so there are no data to show whether stress levels have been changing or teenagers’ mental health is deteriorating. As a result, the data cannot tell us if their lives are more stressful than in the past, or just typically stressful but for different reasons.
Teens are undeniably facing new pressures, including complex social-media interactions, rising university admission standards and soaring tuition levels. The survey found 73 per cent of students between grades 9 and 12 report they are worried about their futures, while 70 per cent said they were worried about school work and 46 per cent said they were stressed about “family matters.” Among the high-school cohort, 38 per cent said they are always or often “under a lot of stress,” 35 per cent say they often have trouble concentrating, 29 per cent often lose sleep because of their worries, and 11 per cent reported they often feel like crying.
Those numbers cannot be ignored. But it is entirely possible that students in bygone decades could have reported similar overall stress levels. Very possibly, adults would report the same trends. And it’s not even necessarily a bad thing. Learning to cope with stress is an age-old part of maturing to adulthood, and stress can be positive when it is a driver for achievement. Moreover, the data must be tempered with other survey findings that found 70 per cent of high-school students (and 80 per cent of those in grades 7 and 8) reported feeling good about themselves, and 67 per cent said they felt “reasonably happy.”
Ultimately, the survey’s greatest practical value may be the help it can provide in identifying those individuals, schools or age groups whose mental health appears worse than these new “normal” baseline data suggest. Officials cannot erase stress from students’ lives, but they can focus on those who are overwhelmed by their stress and target support programs where they are most needed.