Involved students debate benefits, deficits of a culture of academic pressure, validation

September 14, 2022

According to the National Library of Medicine, there is a correlation between symptoms of anxiety and depression and academic stress. With the second month of school beginning, students have observed that CHS has a noticeable culture of academic success and rigor. Many have felt pressure to perform well despite the toll it takes on their mental health, and that our administration should do more to alleviate this issue.

Billy Qian, junior and orchestra student, said the stiff pressure to succeed academically at Carmel can have negative effects on one’s happiness. 

“The competitive pressure around academics can be very overwhelming sometimes. When you are under too much pressure, your level of happiness can go down,” Qian said. “If you are surrounded by other people that are not friendly or nice, the competition can become very toxic.”

However, while Qian said students could act cold because of the academic pressure, Joci Poirier, senior and International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma candidate, said that despite the stress her peers were usually supportive.

She said, “I don’t know how toxic it is… I wouldn’t say people are mean though, all the people I’ve met are really nice.”

Qian said the competitive culture at CHS was actually beneficial because it pushed students to perform their best.

“Some of the competitive pressure here at Carmel is not necessarily all bad. If you are surrounded by people who are friendly and who can push you then the competition can motivate you to do better,” he said.

Alternatively, Poirier said the stiff competition for any opportunities at CHS can encourage excellence, but it can also force students to put in far more work for the same opportunities that would have been easier to obtain at a smaller school. In fact, Carmel is one of the largest public, in-person high schools in the country.

“There’s so many people here and so few of those top scholar opportunities that might push people to be more exceptional,” she said. “I don’t know if it pays off as much, just because there are so many people who are probably vying for a position. I guess pushing students to do better is good, but I just don’t think it pays off most of the time.”

Amy Adamski, guidance counselor and mental health specialist, said this academic competition is beneficial in a supportive environment. 

“Some degree of competition can be healthy to the development of an individual’s academic and emotional growth. Competition can help engage students, establish goals and spark motivation,” Adamski said. “When competition takes place in a supportive environment students have the opportunity to learn about themselves.”

Poirier said administration isn’t always creating a “supportive environment,” however. She said AP classes required far more work than was necessary, teachers had unfairly different expectations of their students and the school pushed students to be successful for its own purposes. For example, public school funding is affected by the standardized test performance of its students.

“I don’t know if (the administration) recognized (the competitive academic environment). They probably know it exists, but it probably looks good on test scores which is always good for Carmel because we want good test scores. I don’t see why they would talk about it,” Poirier said. “I guess the guidance counseling office might be like, ‘Mental health 101, just keep swimming’ and all that, but I don’t think they really would’ve acknowledged it.”

Adamski said that students often need to go beyond their comfort zone and a level of competition can help students with that. 

Unfortunately, not all competition at Carmel is good, said Qian. 

“If your peers keep saying things that you don’t want to hear and continue to pressure you past a certain point, then you should get out of that environment. Instead of motivating you, the pressure will become harmful.” Qian said. “I think the hardest part of dealing with intense competition from your peers is that you often give yourself extra pressure that you should not have to deal with. From there it is really hard not to compare yourself to others because sometimes people think being better than others is a good way to gain confidence which is not true.”

“Highly competitive environments without support can potentially pose some risk to a student’s mental health. It can lead to unrealistic expectations, perfectionism, high anxiety and self-doubt.” Adamski said, “It can also create tension in peer relationships. Students often compare themselves to others and seek validation through success. They may worry about disappointing others, losing academic or social status and attribute self-worth to ‘winning.’”

Similarly, Poirier said a stressful academic environment can also be exacerbated by students’ families, and the pressure from school, home, and themselves can be too much.

“With family, I think it depends on how supportive or encouraging your family is. If your family is very much an academic family and you’re kind of doing this whole academic thing to please them, that can cause issues after you graduate from high school or college,” she said. “Your parents are putting (so) much pressure on you when you’re developing.”

Qian said he agreed and emphasized the importance of finding and creating a secure support system, especially if you’re feeling stressed from academic pressure. 

“Don’t care what other people say in toxic environments,” Qian said. “Do what you think is best for you. Don’t take all AP’s just because your friends are. You shouldn’t be afraid to say that a specific class is going to be too difficult for me and I need to drop out or rethink my schedule. You can always talk to your parents, they will always be there and support you. You can also talk with counselors about excessive harmful peer pressure. They have been working with students for years, so it is likely that they have seen things similar to what you’re experiencing at the moment, so they can give you some tips and tell you things that may help you to go through this.”

Likewise, Poirier said talking to students for academic and extracurricular advice can be more valuable than counselors or college guidebooks. For example, her sister told her to take classes in fields she was interested in because it made the high-level homework and academic rigor easier to handle. 

However, she also advised caution. She said students should not become imbalanced in either direction, stress or apathy, because both mental health and grades matter in high school, especially to sophomores and juniors.

Poirier said, “Grades do matter for college because college is so outrageously expensive. Worrying a bit too much about your letter grade is kind of justifiable. Please take into account grades do matter financially.”

“When working with students in a competitive environment, it is important to focus on the process and not just the outcome. We need to help students identify their strengths, celebrate their progress and assist them in developing communication and problem solving skills. This will allow each individual to tap into their own personal potential,” Adamski said. 

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