Prioritizing mental health requires deeper change in school culture

Avani Khorana , Staff Writer

Ever since I came to HM I have held myself to a high standard and repeatedly ignored and invalidated my struggles with mental health. I believe that this willful disregard of poor mental health stems from the prominent culture of pressure at HM. There is a prestige that comes along with the Horace Mann name and after transfering from a much more relaxed public school, I felt the need to push myself past my limits if I had any hope of standing a chance in such a highly competitive environment. 

In recent years, stress has become a big topic of discussion within our community. It’s important for students to understand that they’re not alone in their struggles, but oftentimes I ignore my stress because I know that I’m not the only one who has a lot of work or multiple assessments the next day. I do believe that mental health should be a top priority, but no matter how much I tell myself that, I still have yet to put it before school. I think that I continue to put pressure on myself because, after being in such an overly academically rigorous environment for so long, that’s what I’ve been conditioned to do.

There are, of course, a multitude of circumstances which can contribute to students’ mental health outside of school. Other factors, such as familial relationships and social life, are also aspects of a person’s life which play a large role in their mental health. For me, the majority of my life revolves around school. Along with increasing my stress levels in terms of academics, school has caused strains between me and my parents and influenced my social life to varying degrees. When I’m both physically and mentally exhausted I tend to take it out on the people close to me, and it’s hard to find time to just relax and talk to my family and friends without worrying about the work I need to get done. 

I spend seven hours a day in class, another two to three hours in varying extracurriculars, then four or so hours trying to work on my assignments. On a good day, I then go to sleep for somewhere between five and six hours, until my alarm blares and signals that it’s time to do it all over again. This is not the same reality for every HM student, but the work we are expected to do puts a lot on our plates. I’ve always been told that if I just do my best everything will be okay. But what happens when my best isn’t good enough? What happens when I exhaust myself trying to complete more work than I can handle? High school is too early to be burning ourselves out.

Whenever I have felt unable to work because of burnout in the past, I used to try to give myself some time to step back and relax. However, I soon realized that I wasn’t actually able to recharge, because all I was doing was beating myself up for “procrastinating” my work. I was using that time to scream at myself internally for not doing enough of what I felt was expected of me. Instead of my relaxation time being relaxation time, I was just burning myself out more because I wasn’t allowing myself to truly unwind. I told myself that it was my fault for “procrastinating” and as such ignored the detrimental effect this kind of internal punishment had on my mental health.

While it’s crucial for students to make sure they are taking care of their mental health, others within the community should strive to promote a climate that clearly and actively values the well-being of every student. There have been several instances in which I have felt that teachers did not truly care about my mental health despite saying otherwise. I may express feelings of distress but those concerns are often glossed over by teachers saying that I’ll “be okay” but then continue to assign the same rigor of work. I feel as though teachers preach the idea of improving our mental health but then don’t actually make efforts to help us do so. 

Although the school has taken steps to mitigate the pressure students are under such as getting rid of calculated GPAs and midterms, we need to change the mindset students have which causes us to put such large amounts of pressure on ourselves. This is a more fundamental issue which won’t be solved overnight or with one clear solution. However, it begins with affirmation and action: teachers, affirm students of the fact that it’s okay if you get a worse grade than you would have hoped for and that it isn’t going to be detrimental for them, and then take the action to actually prove that fact. Make it more feasible to get accomodations for mental health reasons, give extra credit opportunities, base more of the final grade on participation or homework completion and less on test grades, and, overall, promote learning and understanding over ability to perform on assessments. 

We don’t need to and we shouldn’t push ourselves to the brink to get good grades. HM is a bubble. It can be hard to look beyond that bubble and understand that in the grand scheme of things, we will be okay, but I encourage you to try and adopt this mindset. I’ll try too.