This time last year, high school student Sophie spontaneously chopped a bold fringe in the middle of the night as she struggled to cope with academic pressure.
“I think I was having a mental breakdown and decided to cut my hair. I was just looking for new changes to deal with the stress,” the 18-year-old from Melbourne, who withheld her last name for privacy, told HuffPost Australia.
Twelve months on, she’s about to sit her year 12 exams, and admits the pressure to perform still keeps her up most nights. Attending a private school in the Victorian capital, Sophie is not preparing for the state’s VCE exams, but rather the International Baccalaureate (IB Diploma), which is offered at many independent schools and still results in an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank), the score used for university admission.
“My sleeping patterns have been thrown out the window because, late at night, I get hyper and stressed, thinking, ‘Have I done enough tonight?’” she said.
“I’m a perfectionist in what I do, and I get really down on myself if I haven’t done it well and to my best capability.”
Performing well in year 12 and scoring a high ATAR not only equates to academic success for many students, but opens a door to career prospects.
“I’ve known what I want to do since I was in year eight,” said Sophie. “I’ve had this career goal. It’s an Honours course at Monash University.”
A very stressed Sophie is not alone, with a new report finding that work, money and studying are the main sources of stress for young people, with at least 25% of students seeking help from a GP, counsellor or mental health professional as a result of exam stress.
Mental health organisation ReachOut, which provides online support services for Australian youth, released its Ready or Not report with Ernst & Young this week, based on a 2018 survey of more than 1,000 young people aged 14-25. It found that only half of the students surveyed believed they were ready for the workforce after completing studies, and 1 in 5 didn’t feel confident they would be able to find work.
“What comes through from the report is that concerns young people have about work and their future is impacting them right now when it comes to stress about exams,” said Ashley de Silva, CEO of ReachOut. “We know that unhealthy levels of stress can impact mental health if left unchecked.”
Nick Duigan, manager of clinical practice at Headspace – the National Youth Mental Health Foundation – said exam stress “is extremely common” and “can include feelings like increased tension, feeling on-edge, and increased heart rate.”
“Sometimes stress can be helpful to sharpen concentration, focus and motivation on particular tasks, and can actually help with exam study and preparation. However, there is a point when stress can become difficult to handle, and can have a detrimental effect on someone’s ability to study or concentrate.”
This week, UNSW Sydney’s Gonski Institute for Education released the results of its survey of 1,170 Australians. Over 57% of those surveyed thought ATAR scores create unnecessary pressure on year 12 students.
To help lower exam stress levels, some schools are now reassuring students that an ATAR score is not the be-all and end-all.
“Realising that the world will not end if they don’t achieve a certain ATAR can be a big step for many students,” wrote Linda Emms, head of learning and teaching at MLC School, Sydney.
“At MLC School we have a team of experienced professionals well versed in a variety of strategies to help students navigate stressful times. This includes our careers team who talk students through the multiple pathways available to them beyond school.”
Emms told HuffPost Australia that “small amounts of stress in Year 12 can be productive” but that “maintaining balance is a vital factor in managing stress” throughout the final year of high school.
“Staying connected to both their peers and the broader school community through clubs, music and sport is a great way to do this. Added to this is the importance of regular exercise and a healthy diet to maintain positive wellbeing and ensure students are in a good place to bounce back from periods of stress. Sometimes they need to be reminded that they have permission to schedule in some fun ‘me’ time as a part of keeping Year 12 in perspective,” Emms said.
Sophie said she’d feel less stressed if teachers were accessible for individual tutoring sessions.
“I think it would be valuable to have one-on-one time with your teachers. I think classes can be very intimidating, especially with 16 to 20 people that are very vocal about wanting to be the best. Sometimes I’m quite intimidated so I prefer to work in smaller groups or just work with a teacher,” she said.
Emms agreed that teachers “can put in place measures to ensure that students know where to seek support and also to ensure there is open communication about how they are feeling”.
“In some cases they just need someone to talk it through with,” she wrote. “This helps them get things back in perspective and normalise how they are feeling. Teachers can provide lots of practical advice about how to maximise the time they have for study.”
In NSW, HSC written exams will commence on Thursday, Oct. 17, while Victoria’s VCE written exams begin on Wednesday, Oct. 30. The IB Diploma exams start on Friday, Nov. 1.
If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline: 13 11 14.