Teens battle mental health ahead of exams  

Final exams are approaching, and the pressure can be extremely intense for teenagers.

Research shows that two-thirds of adolescent’s experience levels of exam stress that mental health organisations would describe as ‘worrying.’

Further to this, teen suicide which is motivated by exam pressure is becoming a growing concern amongst educators, parents, and social workers.  

“Self-harm due to exam pressure is on the rise globally. A study carried out by the National Education Union in the UK in 2018, reported that 56% of young people have been self-harming or think of self-harming, with 4 in 5 learners saying the reason was related to school tests and exams.

“We need the role-players in our children’s lives to think seriously about the mental health of our teens and to take charge in helping them to deal with these pressures,” says Jonathan Hoffenberg, social worker and PACES Manager (Parent and Community Empowerment and Support). 

Mental health compounded by outdated school system and COVID knock-on  

Final exams, especially matric finals are often viewed as an obstacle course children must overcome to move forward into adult life.

Teens have been taught that if they do not reach their exam goals, they will be unable to follow their dreams.

As a result, they often link their self-esteem to academic achievements. According to Hoffenberg, when we recognise the linear artificial nature of school, we see how much focus is placed on academic achievement and how that can affect mental health. 

“We still have an outdated school system created for a society where children who were not academically driven would leave school early and choose a trade-based career. Today, however, too much pressure is placed on academic knowledge, and this often leads to unrealistic expectations. Plus, the modern work environment has significantly changed and there is great uncertainty in any career path – which all adds more pressure.” 

In addition, there are external stresses to contend with. COVID-19 played a massive role in the decline of teen mental health, and according to Hoffenberg, we are now seeing a knock-on effect, with teens being a lot more stressed than they ever have been.   

He also cites other stressors like the cost-of-living crises, world news, social media, and the high levels of conflict, trauma, and violence which is present in the average South African life. 

Beware of medical interventions  

Parents of anxious teenagers are often desperate for help, and at times turn to medication. But as with all medications, prescription meds to treat teen anxiety can have risks. These can include unwanted side effects such as dizziness, headache, and insomnia.

In some extreme circumstances, the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that the common medications used to treat teen anxiety (SSRIs and SNRIs) have the potential to increase suicidal thoughts and behaviour.  

“While medication can be useful if the situation is right for it, it’s important to not take it lightly. For example, an ex-client of mine who is now in matric this year was prescribed tranquilizers and was over-medicated. She lost an entire month with no memory of what she had done.

After seeing a psychiatrist there were discussions around electroshock therapy and other new treatment methodologies that can be quite extreme. This is deeply worrying as extreme treatment options become part of the teen’s view of themselves. We know mental health stigma is real and sometimes teen choices become the stories that follow and define them for a long time afterwards,” says Hoffenberg.  

How can parents help their stressed teens?  

During stressful times, regression is a normal human reaction, warns Hoffenberg.

This means that teens become immature, needy, anxious, overwhelmed, and irritable. Structure falls away and problems are heightened due to sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, and a lack of exercise.

“Many of the things that could help manage stress are quickly pushed to the side when they are most needed.”  

Here are Jonathan’s top tips for parents to help get their teens through the stress of exams: 

  • Recognise what causes stress; poor sleep, not eating, social pressures, family dysfunction, etc.  
  • Expect interpersonal issues to arise at this time when all parties are under stress. While friendship can be a source of escape, parents should encourage teens to step away when conflict arises, while recognising that their feelings are valid. 
  • Remind your teen of the bigger picture.
  • When it comes to time management, the important thing is to aim for balance. Studying all day and night is not healthy, but don’t expect your teen to maintain their normal schedule with extra-murals, social engagement, and hobbies. Keep downtime and family time in the mix, and put some positive support mechanisms in place
  • Perspective – helping others less fortunate like a once a month volunteer session at the animal shelter can place a teen’s life in context.
  • Encourage good nutrition, especially eating protein, and drinking water (watch out for energy drinks).
  • Communicate, check-in, and remind them to destress.
  • Create a study plan that helps them prioritise – and be willing to change plans if needed.

“Finally, let your teen know that things rarely if ever go as planned, and that is okay.

Both parents and matriculants should remember that the journey is more important than the destination and that learning never ends,” concludes Hoffenberg.

Find out more about our PACES Programme.

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