Local Teens Grapple with Weight of Stress

By J.D. O’Gara
Issue Date: 
October, 2017
Article Body: 

Adults often harken back to carefree days of their youth, but recent studies by the Metrowest Health Foundation, specifically their Adolescent Health Report Card over the last decade, have found that for teenagers, anxiety is on the rise. 
The Metrowest Health Foundation’s Adolescent Health Report Card, most recently completed 2016 with results coming out this past May—surveyed 24,385 students in 26 high schools in the Metrowest area, including Medway, Millis, and Franklin. In 2016, just over a third (36%) of teens in the Metrowest area reported life as being “very stressful,” in the past 30 days, up from 27.9% in 2006. Teen stress in the area is more likely among females, with almost half of female students surveyed (49%) reporting feeling very stressed in the past 30 days, more than double the levels reported by males (22%). In fact, the increase in stress seems to be driven by females, as over the past decade, stress among male students (22%) has remained level while stress among female students has increased from 35% in 2006 to 49% in 2016.
Larger shares of older students are feeling the pressure, according to the survey. While a quarter of 9th graders surveyed felt stressed in the past 30 days, that share grew to 48% among seniors. Sources of stress reported by students included:
• School issues (66%)
• Getting good grades (68%)
• Being able to finish all
their work and study enough (62%)
• Plans after high school (49%)
• Social issues (33%)
In local high schools, school personnel are noting the change among students. In Medway, Ryan Sherman, Director of Wellness, is working with parents and other faculty on a new organization called Medway T.H.R.I.V.E. He points to the Adolescent Healthy Survey as an indicator that programs geared to wellness are important to the success of students.
Mark Awdycki, guidance counselor at MHS, feels “information overload” can cause more stress among kids. With a Google search, he says, parents and kids can be overwhelmed with information.
“You see colleges tout how many applications they get, how their acceptance rates have gone down, how competitive they are and hard to get into. It trickles down to our kids, who ask, how am I going to compete?” he says. What’s missing is being able “to take a step back and ask, what do I want to do? What do I have a passion about?” He hopes to see students taking AP classes because they really enjoy the subject, not because “I have to take this many AP courses.”
Awdycki believes parents are stressed as well, and technology makes them always accessible. 
“Everything happens so fast. There’s constant interruption,” he says. “We move in a very fast society, and I think for some kids, it’s too fast, and there’s too much going on at once.”
Millis High School has focused on building grit, or resilience among students, and it’s also instituted the Signs of Suicide program, as well as a stress management class as a half-year elective. There’s also an advisory program, in which small groups of students in each grade meet with one teacher for all four years. 
“It connects you to somebody else in the building and has been an opportunity to foster conversation around some things going on,” says Awdycki.
Gabby Siraco, former school adjustment counselor at Millis High School, suspects society’s use of technology and social media has a lot to do with the rise. She often saw students in Millis come in panicking about a “B.”
“They don’t’ know what they’re going to do (and think) it’s going to ruin their transcript. I know none of us gave them that message, including their parents, but they’ve gleaned that information from different places,” say Siraco. She says she saw a shift in younger kids worrying about getting into college.
Siraco also blames technology.
“Things are so different from when we were in high school,” she says. Although she can’t point to specific studies, she adds, “Even us in our work – we’re on 24/7. We have our laptops. We have our cell phones. For (teens), it’s what’s going on with friends, who’s doing what, who’s saying what, and why wasn’t I included. … There’s no down time.”
“If stress goes unchecked, certainly it can lead toward feeling depressed,” says Siraco. Finding different ways to manage stress emotions is important, she says, as is acknowledging the need for help and reaching out to parents who can find a patient therapist. 
Advice she recommends for dealing with stress is “Communicate and unplug. I feel like that may oversimplify it, but if you’re talking to each other, you’re more likely to figure out what is the problem and what is it you need to address it.”
Jess Boose, youth minister for kids in 7th to 11th grade at Church of Christ in Millis, says that, in addition to stress spilling over from parents and overscheduling, she sees kids in her youth group focusing more on their resumes.
“What I see is that building the resume for college is much more important than it used to be,” she says. Although Boose feels it’s great that schools are requiring students to do community service, “there’s no depth to it. It becomes a one-off. Kids don’t have real participation and takeaway … They are learning that it is just a box to check, not that volunteering is necessary to make all parts of a community work or to empathize or care about people who rely on soup kitchens.” Boose feels that the requirement becomes “another anxiety piece.”
At Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical School, too, counselor Adele Sands says, “Absolutely, we’re definitely seeing an uptick of students with anxiety.” Sands is one of three full time adjustment counselors at the school of over 1,000 students.
“Some of the things, when I was growing up, that were far away and I didn’t have to think about – it’s part of their world. There’s an immediacy of information that I think is impacting (teens),” says Sands. “They know what’s happening in the world, every minute of every day. We’re all feeling that the world is not as safe as it was. There’s research saying it’s safer, but I don’t think people feel it.” Sands also suggests economic impacts affecting families are affecting students, and the rise of the opioid epidemic has an effect.
Last school year, in fact, Tri-County assembled a team of about 15 faculty looking into “trauma sensitive” schools. 
“We have a group of teachers, both vocational and regular, and guidance counselors, who have gotten together and are doing some research on the best practices in creating a trauma sensitive environment. I think right now their objective is to do as much research as they can around trauma, around school anxiety, around mindfulness. When they have a really good idea of what they are looking at, they’ll have a better idea how they can impact the greater school community.