Today’s students live in somewhat frightening times because of the massively increased prevalence of stress, anxiety, and depression. High schools have become pressure cookers which seem to somehow encourage mental health problems in students. Getting into college is not, by itself, impressive anymore. Students must constantly strive to get into the most selective institutions possible. Any student who settles for a little-known college is assumed to be, at best, an underachiever. At worst, they’re assumed to be a failure, whose life won’t add up to anything significant.
These feelings are nicely chronicled by an article in the New York Times. The article describes a town in Massachusetts where every child is expected to aspire to Harvard or MIT. The self-reported incidence of suicidal thoughts is a terrifying 15 percent. Struggles with anxiety and depression are nearly universal. Kids, each of whom is struggling with their own mental health, are forced to play counselor with all of their friends in order to try and help them find peace.
These are feelings that I think everyone who recently made their way through the school system can relate to, even if they’re more severe than what most kids go through. I think it’s especially important for teachers in the present era to understand what students are going through, because I think teachers are the key to solving this problem. English teachers specifically have a unique role to play, because English is the subject arguable most associated with helping kids understand who they are, what they believe in, and how they think. If kids can understand what is really driving their anxiety, they can begin to combat it. Here are some ways that I think English teachers should work to fight anxiety.
- Emphasize the conflicts and moments of tension that literary characters experience. One of the biggest issues that teenagers face when they have anxiety is the feeling that no one can truly understand what they’re going through. If teachers can spend class time talking about moments when anxiety appears in literature, it may be the first step to having a more open conversation about mental health for many kids.
- Establish yourself as someone who cares about every part of a kid’s life, not just schoolwork. When I was in high school, I developed a personal relationship with all of my teachers, even ones that I never had for classes. If I ever had moments of doubt, a friendly face was never far away. This happened in part because I went to a very small school, but teachers should strive to create this environment whenever they can.
- Let kids know that there are lots of different pictures of success. Not everyone needs to be a high-powered lawyer or doctor or business genius. Most people in this country still don’t even have bachelor’s degrees. No one path works for everyone, and it’s more important for kids to be happy with the path they’re on rather than being pushed toward things they don’t want. For English teachers, this can mean drawing from examples of literary characters who have happy endings even though they defy the norms of their communities and the expectations of those around them.
Anxiety may never vanish completely, but it’s the responsibility of teachers to try and mitigate it as much as possible. If this happens, I believe that we can help hope return to all of the stressed out kids of this generation.