May was Mental Health Awareness month, but this has certainly not been a mental health awareness year. The “pressure-cooker” environment at Payton has long compelled students to cram APs into their schedules, ignoring warnings from previous victims of impossible schedules that will, in our goal-driven minds, appear sterling on our college applications. The Payton atmosphere, so unique in the outstanding amount of success it demands from its students, unfortunately lacks in the social-emotional support required for these circumstances.
Despite attempts to educate students about mental health awareness through the introduction of enrichments, advisory lessons, and weekly school-wide emails, the mindset of both students and faculty that school comes before all combats these efforts involuntarily.
In the mental health awareness survey that the Paw Print staff sent to the entire student body, some of the results of which are published here, students’ anonymous responses to the question: “Do you feel like the school provides information and other resources on coping with stress, depression, anxiety, etc?” represent the opinion that the school’s environment is paradoxical to the efforts of the faculty and administration to promote mental health.
One present concern expressed by an anonymous tenth grade student addressed this contradiction between what the staff tells students and what they actually carry out: “They definitely provide information; it’s not very effective. Payton has a culture of competition that builds stress and anxiety and that needs to be dealt with. The overwhelming expectations placed on teens need to be dealt with.”
However, the faculty is not to blame for this issue – at least, not completely. The competitiveness that comes with placing 900 of the most intelligent and hardworking teens in the state of Illinois into one school is to be expected, as many students grow used to being at the top of their class in elementary school. Whether intrinsic or expressed outwardly, the competition between students to gain better grades or test scores increases the stress and pressure placed on students.
Despite this, it is the responsibility of the faculty not to foster this stressful environment. It is unreasonable to demand that students participate in sports or other extracurriculars, volunteer in their community, and complete the extensive amount of homework assigned in many classes. For Payton students, the school day doesn’t end when they go home. Some have to drop out of extracurriculars that they enjoy in order to make more time for homework, in turn making time for sleep, a rare commodity among many teens at Payton.
While recent efforts to promote mental health awareness and and wellness have been made visible, many occur outside the classroom. These efforts, such as Principal Devine’s policy that requires that no homework be assigned during breaks, are sometimes ignored by teachers, causing the attempts at promoting mental health wellness to be futile.
One senior wrote in response to the previously stated question in the survey: “Their methods [of providing information and resources on mental health] are unrealistic for an environment like Payton.”
A junior agreed with this point of view, saying, “The information is scarce and not taken as seriously by the students as it should be. Mental health should be emphasized more by teachers.”
The high pressure and competitive nature at Payton are difficult to neutralize, and the stressful environment can lead to more serious mental health issues, as well as heightening pre-existing mental health conditions, making the school setting more harmful.
While recent efforts made by the counseling and social services departments have been recognized, in terms of mental health awareness and promotion, there has been, in the poignant words of a Payton sophomore, “not enough.”