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Students under stress reach for the top – or else Add to ...

In an empty science classroom on a Friday morning at Ottawa’s Nepean High School, a group of Grade 12 students, all off to university next year, are itemizing the cost of accomplishment.

There’s the lack of sleep. “I’m always tired,” says Sarah Endenburg, 18, who is considering a career in marine biology. “Sometimes you have so much homework, there is no way you are going to get it done.”

To universal agreement, another student mentions the pressure to perform. “I remember my dad telling me stories about how he’d mess around in school and get away with it,” says Andrea Carter, 17, bound for business school. “But we know what’s at stake and we know what can be lost if we fool around too much.”

And that’s Michael Osmond’s lament: not enough fooling around. “I’ve never been to a house party before,” says the 17-year-old, who found out last week that curtailing his social life has earned him a $32,000 scholarship to the University of Guelph.

“There’s still time,” Ms. Carter tells him.

But these students don’t have much time to spare. They are up early and finishing their homework late, juggling class and band and soccer and theatre class and babysitting gigs in between. Salomon Schroeter, who plans to become a veterinarian, says he sometimes maps out his week on Sunday and wonders how he’ll make it to Friday. Are they stressed? Shrugs, all around. Not really, they say, even while describing lives in which naps induce guilt and flunking one exam would feel like a career-ender. This group can breathe a little slower now that the university acceptance letters have arrived; some of their friends aren’t so lucky. As Ms. Carter says, “If I wasn’t going to university next year, I would be scared for my future.”

Should we be scared for these high-achievers anyway? Something seems to be happening in the transition into university – a story reflected in the increasing demand on campus mental health services as more and more students arrive with anxiety problems. In a society of tiger moms and agenda-toting first-graders, where fame and fortune is the (assumed) goal and sleep is for the weak, do we risk burning out the brightest even before they can lead?

“Students are often given the impression that there’s a race, and they can’t mess up along the way, or they will lose,” says Ian Manion, executive director of the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health. Dr. Manion reports seeing more middle-school students already struggling with anxiety about high school. To his high school patients, “I often say it’s okay to take a victory lap.”

According Statistics Canada data from 2005, nearly 40 per cent of teenagers felt under constant pressure to do more than they could handle, and 64 per cent said they had cut back on sleep to get work done. A British Columbia survey of 30,000 students in 2010 found that 18 per cent reported that their stress was “almost more than I can take.” (A similar finding was made in Ontario.)

And lest everyone forgets, all this pressure is playing out against high school, when hormones rage, social pitfalls lurk and your Facebook page requires near-constant surveillance. On this count, some things never change – right now, Ms. Carter and Mr. Schroeter say, a top source of stress is finding a date to the prom.

There is a more complicated story hidden in the data. Poor kids are more stressed than their middle-class peers, girls report significantly higher anxiety levels than boys and grade-schoolers are more carefree than older teenagers. And while a packed schedule may win that scholarship (and keep your teen from playing video games all weekend), too much may be dangerous. The B.C. research found that suicide rates and thoughts of suicide declined with more extracurricular activities – but only to a point. Young people whose lives were jammed with nightly activities (and sometimes three or four in one night) had the same rate of suicide and suicidal thoughts as those with no activities at all. “You’re thinking, omigod, do they sleep?” said Elizabeth Saewyc, a UBC professor of nursing and a lead researcher in the survey. “These kids need breathing time. They need time to dream, to get homework done. They need enough sleep.”

But the four Nepean students say that’s the quandary. To achieve their goals they need the resumé. “It seems like one activity isn’t enough,” says Ms. Carter. And it won’t stop: Mr. Osmond’s parents have already shown him a list of the volunteer clubs that await him at university, he says, and made sure he knows the grades he needs to keep his scholarship.

At least the prom is handled. “The pressure is off,” he says. “My number one choice said yes.

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Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen


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