Schools offer yoga, advice to stressed teens as others point to contributing cultural factors

School districts in parts of Washington state are implementing yoga and other de-stressing activities into classes to address the climbing stress levels among students.

A recent survey reveals increasing percentages of students who report “very” stressful lives, and efforts to address the problem through yoga and stress-reduction techniques are positive steps toward dealing with anxiety without medications. Others also point to the cultural causes of student stress, and encourage schools to help students manage emotions while forming good character.

According to the Milford Daily News:

Data from the MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey reports more and more high school students claiming “very” stressful lives with each survey. More than a quarter of high school teenagers surveyed since 2006 checked the option. Numbers shot up to 35 percent in 2014, then rose another percentage point in 2016, the most recent survey . . .

The regional MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey covers behaviors from smoking, drinking and taking non-prescription drugs, to having sex, bullying, depression, attempted suicides and more. High school and middle students in 25 cities and towns in the area fill out the surveys every other year, and many local districts rely on the data.

And while the responses show fewer teens smoked cigarettes or marijuana, had sex, faced bullying, or drank alcohol last year than in years past, school officials are particularly worried about the rising anxiety among students.

“I’ve been here six years now and I have only seen it worsening,” Ashland High School counselor Jennifer Pavia-Shiels told the Daily News. “It’s probably the biggest mental health challenge that I see with my students.”

To help students cope, teachers incorporated yoga into a wellness class at Bellingham High School, administrators launched homework-free “family reconnect weekends” at Ashland High School, and educators in Hopedale schools assign “mindfulness” homework to encourage students to take time off for bike rides and down time.

Other schools are implementing later start times, and adding free periods to give students more time to talk with counselors.

“There’s a certain amount of stress in the sort of mild to moderate range that helps us accomplish our goals, but what we’re experiencing is beyond that, beyond what we’ve seen before,” Franklin School Superintendent Sara Ahern said. “We really want to tame it and help students identify sources of stress.”

Local educators told the news site students feel pressured to create standout resumes for college, many through multiple after-school activities and high-level academic courses while maintaining jobs and social lives.

“Many of our students feel tremendous pressure to sort of push themselves . . . at a pace that is difficult to sustain,” Milford High School Principal Joshua Otlin said.

“Really my job is to teach them some strategies to help them self-regulate when the panic is setting in,” Pavia-Sheils said. “Beyond that, we’re trying to teach almost different lifestyle choices to reduce that stress.”

Hopedale Superintendent Karen Crebase also pointed out that social media is exacerbating the problem.

“They’re living on a platform where everybody knows what they’re doing and when they’re doing it,” Hopedale Superintendent Karen Crebase said. “And I think that has made the need to be perceived in a different way even stronger.”

The problems with student anxiety mirror issues with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder addressed by Jay Tolson in The Hedgehog Review, a publication of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Students with ADHD have been treated in large part with medication, but both issues—ADHD and teen anxiety—beg for a broader understanding of contributing cultural causes driving the trends.

Tolson writes:

[We should think] about attention . . . [at least in part] as a cultural problem. Even in relation to America’s epidemic of ADHD, for example, a healthy awareness of the indeterminacy of attention should alert us both to the inadequacy of strictly biologistic explanations of the disorder and to the strong likelihood that culture plays a part in the rising incidence of people being treated for the symptoms associated with it (the “holy trinity” of which are poor attention, poor self-control, and excessive activity).

According to the best recent study, some 4.8 million Americans used medications (usually Adderall or Ritalin) for the condition in 2012, a 36 percent increase over the number who used it 2008, with the most striking increase among women between 26 and 34. (Adolescent boys 12 to 18 still lead all age and gender groups, with almost one in ten taking some kind of medication.) The fact that no other modern industrial or postindustrial society comes close to America’s numbers explains why even some physicians feel wary about overmedicalization. There are good reasons to suspect that the condition may have as much to do with our performance-obsessed culture as with neurons, particularly when we hear about the ever-rising expectations and competitiveness in childrearing practices, schools, and the modern workplace.

Though published in 1998, Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill remains a valuable reflection on the challenges of diagnosing and treating the disorder. Lawrence H. Diller, a pediatrician and family therapist with extensive clinical experience and much good sense, laces his accounts of specific cases with shrewd commentary on the need to understand how the demands of our culture may be driving too many Americans to medicate their children or themselves: ‘As competition on every level intensifies, our preoccupations as a culture increasingly center on performance. And our children, whether we realize it or not, have been serving as a proving ground for the premise of medicating to enhance performance.’

Several school officials in Washington told the Daily News they’ve incorporated social emotional learning into daily classroom lessons as another positive step toward helping overstressed students.

The Jubilee Centre also offers lessons on managing emotions as a way of intentionally forming good character in students.