High-Achieving High Schools at Risk for Behavioral and Mental Health Problems

By: Abby Schultz (Managing Editor)

A study published this past summer by the National Academies of Sciences reveals that students in high-achieving schools are now considered an ‘at-risk’ group.

The label “at-risk” refers to findings showing that students in high-achieving schools are experiencing higher rates of behavioral and mental health problems compared with national standards. In this study, high-achieving schools are defined to be high schools that have high standardized test scores, varied extracurricular and academic offerings, and graduates who enroll at prestigious colleges. Sharon High School falls into this category of high achieving schools, as it is currently ranked seventh on a list of the best public schools in Massachusetts by Boston Magazine.

Similar to the National Academies of Sciences study, Boston Magazine formulated a list of the top public schools in Massachusetts by compiling various categories, including MCAS scores, average SAT scores, and graduation rates.

At Sharon High School, the average SAT scores for the reading/writing section stands at a 613 while the average score for the math section currently stands at 623. Both of these place Sharon High School way above both state and national averages.

Sharon High School is also at the top of the list regarding varied academic offerings with a current total of 23 AP courses for students to choose from. 

Conducted every four years, the risky behavior survey reveals noteworthy statistics about the students at Sharon High School. The risky behavior survey conducted at the end of last year uncovered significant results regarding the mental well-being of the student body at Sharon High School. 

The survey found that 30% of students believe too much nightly homework to be the cause of the majority of school related stress. However, in terms of overall stress, 45% of students said that getting good grades and getting into college was the primary cause. 

Perhaps the result that stood out the most was that from 2015 to 2019, the number of students reporting having symptoms of depression symptoms rose a whopping 10%. There was also an increase in the percentage of students reporting having unmanageable stress on most days.

Wellness and Physical education teacher at Sharon High School, Ms. Barbara Munden, says that she is concerned with the mental health related statistics from the survey. Munden says that she is working hard to bring programs to the school that can help spread awareness about mental health. “I have been trying to contact people in Easton because I know they had done a whole presentation about mental health and it is my goal as a teacher to bring it here,” said Munden.

“It is not just here that mental health problems exist, it is everywhere and we need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health,” added Munden. 

AP Psychology teacher at Sharon High School Ms. Mara Georgi, says that she is aware of various psychological disorders from which students at Sharon High School suffer. “I know about mental health problems among students mainly from the number of kids who talk about their anxiety medications and therapist visits,” said Georgi.

Georgi adds that the number of Sharon High School students being hospitalized for psychological disorders is on the rise.

Freshman Trisha Brahmachari says that school has not caused her any significant psychological problems so far in her high school career. “I do not get stressed about school very often yet,” said Brachmachari.

Senior Shirley Wiseman disagrees with Brahmachari, saying that school causes her high levels of stress more frequently. “I would say I get pretty stressed like multiple times a week,” said Wiseman.

Freshman Tanya Wadekar says that she experiences varied levels of stress, depending on whether she has a test or quiz on the horizon or not. “I usually feel some sort of stress every time I have a test or quiz coming up so that is basically every week,” said Wadekar.

Senior Matt Zhou says that psychological disorders that students at Sharon High School are suffering from are mainly related to the types of people that they associate themselves with. “I think most of the negative psychological effects that come with school are more about the people you surround yourself with and not specifically being at Sharon High School,” said Zhou. 

Georgi says that it is ironic that students tend to blame the school faculty for their mental health problems. “It is definitely interesting that kids tend to say its the schools fault and that teachers give too much homework because when you actually look at studies, it is hard to believe that it is our fault primarily,” said Georgi. 

“It seems like every time the school tries something to reduce the amount of stress, both the kids and the parents get angry,” added Georgi. 

The underlying reason for high-achieving high schools being at a higher risk for mental health and behavioral disorders remains unknown. 

Wiseman says that Sharon High students tend to overload their schedules with difficult classes which then leads to high levels of stress. “So many people push themselves to take honors and AP classes because we are told how much better they will look on our transcripts but they simply can not manage them,” said Wiseman.

“Since our school is so competitive, our standard classes are probably equivalent to accelerated classes at other schools,” added Wiseman. 

Ms. Georgi says that the amount of work that Sharon High School teachers give is not a main cause of students’ stress.“Summer reading and daily homework assignments are now two thirds as much as they used to be so we have cut way back on the amount of work but now one of the problems is that the students now have more and more things other than just school work to stress about like extracurriculars,” said Georgi.

There is a growing debate on what the solutions should be for the growing number of behavioral and mental health problems for students at high-achieving schools. Ms. Georgi says that she is doubtful that a solution exists. “Unfortunately there isn’t any real solution because teachers, faculty, and the administration make solutions that would help but they are not accepted,” said Georgi.

“The only thing that we can do is try to help kids to learn to cope better and be more resilient and that is something that I have built into my AP psychology classes with handing out articles that include coping strategies,” added Georgi. 

Zhou says that he is optimistic about the environment at Sharon High School, as he compares it with other high-achieving schools in Massachusetts. “Sometimes I stop and reflect on where a lot of my friends go to school and I’ve realized that other highly ranked public schools like Lexington or Boston Latin have a lot more pressure to do well in school because more people are determined to be their best in school,” said Zhou.

“Sharon’s environment is not the best but I remind myself that it [the pressure] could be a lot worse if I went elsewhere,” added Zhou.

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