A significant majority of Niskayuna High School students feel “inadequate” compared to their peers, according to a survey conducted by a team of students for an AP English project.
The survey – which juniors Greg George, MJ Lee and Johanne Friedman presented to the school board last week – shined stark light on the stress and anxiety permeating one of the region’s highest-performing schools.
Their findings were based on anonymous surveys from 173 students across all grades: Around 70 percent of sophomores, juniors and seniors reported negative mental side effects associated with stress; 76 percent of sophomores and 73 percent of seniors said they feel “academically inadequate” compared to their classmates; and 38 percent of sophomores admitted to “intentionally” hurting themselves.
“When we looked at the results, all of us were quite shocked just how prevalent stress is in the high school,” George said in an interview at the high school a couple of days after the board presentation.
His colleagues agreed.
“Every student knows this exists, but I didn’t know it was so widespread,” Friedman said.
In their presentation, the students highlighted an apparent uptick in stress levels from the end of freshman year to the end of sophomore year. Sophomores reported the highest levels of stress on most of the study’s indicators; on average, the sophomores said they feel stressed just over five days a week. Seventy-five percent of sophomores reported negative physical side effects caused by stress – higher than any other grade by 10 percentage points.
The team of student researchers posited the sharp upturn in student stress in that second year could be caused by the onset of harder classes, higher teacher expectations, heavier workloads and the intensifying obsession with college applications. While the reported levels of stress dip slightly for juniors and seniors, nearly three-quarters of juniors and seniors still said they felt their stress levels were “excessive.”
The trio of student researchers said they recognize that some stress is unavoidable and that it can also play a positive role in motivating hard work and success – over half of their respondents reported being “positively motivated” by stress. But they also said the survey results were undeniably concerning and a call to action.
“No students should have to feel inadequate compared to their peers,” George told the school board. “That’s very demoralizing.”
Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert called the students’ findings “certainly alarming.” Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said the district is actively working on the issue and said “social-emotional supports are priority number one in next year’s budget.”
“You are definitely going to be hearing from me,” Tangorra told the students after their presentation.
‘Don’t talk about it… don’t deal with it’
In the affluent environs of Niskayuna, the problems with stress, anxiety and mental health aren’t confined to the schools. Bob Winchester, a former Niskayuna health teacher who worked in the district for 36 years, was also at last week’s board meeting, calling attention to the mental health challenges also facing adults.
Winchester released a study earlier this year that showed that Niskayuna adults were also dealing with stress, economic concerns and serious mental health problems and dealing with them in an open and productive way.
“The students are more willing to talk about anxiety and stress than the adults are in our community, and that is very unfortunate because it contributes to the challenge that people have,” Winchester said. “I look forward to the day that adults in our community stand up and speak about the kinds of stresses and anxieties and problems our community faces with as much honesty and candor.”
He said the unwillingness and inability of adults to deal with their mental health problems in an open and forthright way further stigmatizes those challenges and sends the wrong message to students.
“One of the most concerning parts of it is the community as a whole is not dealing with it,” Winchester said. “The students learn you don’t talk about it, you don’t deal with it and that’s a dangerous lesson for kids to learn and carry out with them in their life.”
Michael Hogan, who graduated from Niskayuna in 1965 and has served as state chief of mental health departments in Ohio, Connecticut and New York from 2007 to 2012, said depression and anxiety are more prevalent, in all communities, than most people recognize. Even issues that may be considered mild by a psychiatrist can have serious impact and pose real challenges in people’s lives, he said.
The issues raised in the student presentation is unlikely unique to Niskayuna, Hogan said, but something worth paying serious attention to and discussing and dealing with in an open way. He said the Niskayuna community needs to tailor its own solution.
“It’s not a cause for panic, but it probably is a cause for action,” Hogan said of the student findings. “The big issue is not about Niskayuna as a community. The only thing exceptional is that these young people have done this work to explore it.
Hogan said depression and suicide rates are higher in adults than kids and pointed out that even though women experience higher rates of depression, men commit suicide at higher rates, at least partly because women are more willing to talk openly about their difficulties.
But he and other Niskayuna graduates do reflect back on their high school classmates as particularly smart and talented – a competitive environment of sharp students.
“I have always felt the group of students I had in my AP English class… was the smartest group of people I was ever in a room with,” Hogan said. “And I ended up being in a lot of rooms with a lot of smart people over my life.”
Not just about the problem
The students did more than just outline their findings at the board meeting. They also detailed a list of potential solutions, ranging from training peer counselors to a full-on “cultural shift” to reduce the stigma around stress and mental health.
The students highlighted the 7 Cups of Tea program, which would allow the school the chance to start a student-led chapter in Niskayuna. The program gives students access to communicate anonymously through an app with trained “listeners” as well as facilitate student-to-student counseling and mentoring.
They also suggested opening the door to conversations about stress, anxiety and mental health beyond health classes, proposing an annual assembly on the topic. They also said it was important for students to feel they could talk about the issues openly with teachers and staff, pointing out that while 51 students surveyed report feelings of depression, only 11 said they had spoken with a teacher or school counselor about those feelings.
“It helps in certain ways to see a lot of other people dealing with it,” Friedman said, suggesting knowledge of how widespread the stress is could open doors to more conversations about it. “It’s kind of comforting in a weird sense. There’s nothing wrong with me, because everyone is feeling like this and it’s OK to do some self care and dial it back.”