Caroline White '21
If you ask the students here at Westborough High School what the school environment is like, you will surely receive a variety of responses. Some students may say WHS is welcoming or friendly. However, many students will also tell you that the environment is stressful, anxiety-provoking, and mentally taxing. Stress is defined as a state of mental strain resulting from very demanding circumstances. Yes, students here are very fortunate to attend such a high performing public school, but that comes with its downfalls: stress, high expectations, and anxiety over our futures. Of 141 WHS students from all grades surveyed in an Instagram poll, 87% said that school negatively impacts their mental health.
The faculty here is aware of the stress that many students experience.
“We definitely talk at staff meetings about things that go on on a daily basis and how to support students overall in every class, every day,” Assistant Principal Jessica Barrett says. “I know there are some teachers who just keep an eye on their students. They notice when they’re not feeling right or doing great and will talk to them, offer them a chance to take a break in the classroom, or to go for a walk. And I think a big way teachers support students, too, is by working with the other staff here in regard to students cases,” she adds.
According to the 2018 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey for Westborough High School, school is the most common cause of stress, as reported by 65% of the students here. Eighty-three percent of students answered the Instagram survey saying that the academic aspect of school was more stressful than the social aspect.
One former student, when questioned what her main stressors were in high school, immediately answered “Definitely school work.”
Even administrators have repeatedly used the word “rigorous” to describe the academics here.
“I think that a majority of people are overly stressed out, whether it be about academics or athletics or music. I feel like we all have a certain pressure on us to be perfect,” junior Madilyn Richards says.
One freshman comments, “I’m always so worried about my grades…when I don’t do well I tend to get upset which brings down how I feel about myself because I feel stupid.”
Many students cite the excessive workload assigned by their teachers as a major source of stress and anxiety. Richards, along with others, suggests that the teachers cut down on the “excessive load of busy work.”
One freshman comments that her teachers are very helpful and supportive on a daily basis. Another student who is a senior says that the teachers here are “for the most part” supportive of the mental health of their students.
Mrs. Barrett also explains that she believes that one of the main stressors for WHS students is time management. A former student explains that if a student is to go to school, participate in after school activities, have a job, as many students must, complete their homework, and get a healthy amount of sleep, they would most likely exceed the 24 hour time limit of a day.
For students who require special help and support, we have the Center for Student Success program.
“The main purpose of the CSS program is to be a place here at school for general education students who might have to be absent for what we would consider a significant amount of time,” says Westborough High School social worker Stephanie Glenn. “Our purpose is to provide a safe place to land for a student when they come back to school, and to give them a place to get caught up academically, and also give them the opportunity to check in with someone who is trained in mental health…”
The students and faculty alike recognize that the programs at schools are helpful, but not perfect.
“Because of the MetroWest health survey, I know that there are still things, like all schools, that we need to work on,” concludes Mrs. Glenn. Additionally, she says “No problem is ever too small of a problem to go get support.”
Mrs. Glenn wants all students to know that if they ever need help coping with an issue, the CSS door is always open.
The teachers at WHS are conscious of their students’ mental health and ready to strengthen their support.
“I think there’s a lot of stress generally speaking. It seems like students have pressure from their parents, and also their peers. I think because we have Powerschool that you guys have 24/7 access to, that generates a lot of stress,” says social studies teacher Mr. Teevens.
Mr. Teevens gives his students check-ins occasionally, in order to be aware of their understanding of the curriculum, but also to stay in tune with their well being.
“I understand that, just like us teachers, you all have a ton on your plate. I think giving students the chance to say ‘Hey, I’m really excited about this game coming up,’ or conversely, ‘I’m really stressed out right now, I’m going through a difficult time,’ is good” he explains.
Math teacher Mrs. Powers says “I have seen over the last few years definitely an increase of stress. I think I’ve seen an increase in students being involved in a thousand different things, the end goal being college.”
She shares that when she notices a student struggling, she makes sure to reach out to guidance on the student’s behalf.
“There is not just one thing that needs to change, there are a lot of things that need to change,” Powers comments. “A small part is really looking at homework and having it be meaningful. We can also look at what we can do less, not ‘let’s do a thousand things.’”
One faculty member who makes it a goal to improve mental health support at WHS is librarian Mrs. Cellucci.
“I think that in general, most students have some sort of anxiety happening with school,” she says. “I think that it’s really important that I always focus on all students. It’s always about equity and making sure that everyone has access to things.”
Mrs. Cellucci has written several grants to bring in programs and training to support WHS, three specifically focused on mental health. One of her main goals is to destigmatize the idea of mental health and mental illness and to promote an open community of support for teenagers. Starting in 2013, she also opened up the library to students during lunch in order to provide a safer feeling, less busy and chaotic place for students to eat. Additionally, she brought in a training for teachers called Youth Mental Health First Aid.
“It helps teachers to recognize signs with students and things that are happening with students and to be able to refer them somewhere,” she explains.
Another common stressor among our student body is the large amount of homework assigned by teachers on any given night.
“School makes me happy. You get to see your friends and talk to people,” junior Isabella Binici says. “It’s when I get home and have to do my homework that I get stressed.”
She is not alone. Eighty five percent of students reported that they feel that homework prevents them from getting a healthy amount of sleep every night. Science shows that teenagers need 9 ½ hours of sleep every night. Students often have to sacrifice family time, down time, and sleep every evening for homework.
One former Westborough High School student comments, “If teachers would just take a step back and give only homework that is actually supplemental to what we do in class, that would be so much better.”
One junior suggests adding a study hall period to give students a chance to get a head start on their work.
Many students also expressed feelings of stress over the non-academic aspects of school, including the social side and extracurriculars.
“I feel like the expectation at Westborough is not just that you’re smart, but that you do extracurriculars,” one junior comments. “It’s like being smart is a social thing.”
Many students feel that the faculty forgets what a stressful place high school can be socially. Students have not yet grown out of bullying and immature cruelty towards others. It is important that the teachers and administrators at Westborough High are aware of the behaviors of students towards each other. Unkind behavior can be extremely taxing on the mental health of teenagers.
Westborough High School has some work to do in terms of support.
“It’s so bad for kids who don’t have CSS because it feels like those kids are prioritized,” Richards says.
Of the students surveyed, 74% said that they felt that the WHS faculty does not do enough to support the mental health of most students.
“I think as long as my grades are good, they don’t care,” adds Richards.
Junior Daniel Hastings remarks, “I feel that the staff has good intentions, but doesn’t know how to help us.”
In such a rigorous and stressful academic and social environment, it is imperative that teachers support all students, not just those who are in special programs. All students have the opportunity to go to guidance, but support from guidance counselors does not translate into the classrooms.
The students here are eager to help foster a supportive and understanding relationship between the faculty and the student body. Many students are ready for their suggestions and constructive criticisms to be heard. During surveys and interviews, various students offered specific suggestions, saying that changes must be made.
Senior Paul Jacob Connelly suggests that the school dedicate more time to the issue of mental health.
“This week is ‘mental health week’ and what we’re doing for it is taking a half-hour at the end of one school day and taking just 30 minutes to talk about mental health. It’s such a big issue and administration isn’t making enough time for it,” he says.
Binici, along with several other students, feels that an open line of communication regarding mental health could help students tremendously.
“For people who do have mental health problems, the teacher should ask if they want to disclose that with them so that they’re aware and they can be a little more understanding of those kids,” she suggests.
One former student proposes an idea used at some other schools in the area: “Teachers have bean bags on their desks, and you can take one from the teacher’s desk and put it on your desk,” she explains. “For that period, no one can bother you. If you use it more than three times in a quarter, then you have to go to guidance to talk things out.”
Another student suggests that stronger teacher-student relationships could be helpful. “Maybe teachers should have days where they get to know their students,” he proposes. “Students might be more likely to seek support from a teacher who they are comfortable with and share some sort of connection with.”
One suggestion was to create a board of students to come together to voice the concerns and ideas of the student body to the administration. In addition, having an advisory period may be a beneficial option to help students build stronger bonds with a teacher and a group of peers. Mrs. Cellucci also has a group called the Teen Advisory Board, and all students are welcome to attend meetings and bring their suggestions to her. Many students who suffer from mental illness do not miss school for it and have to make it through their days without a place to go to cool down when then need to, and those students need the adults at school to be looking out for them in their classes.
“I hope that our students know that we are a faculty and a school that’s willing and able to learn from our mistakes and strengthen where we might have a weakness, or continue to do what we’re doing well,” Glenn remarks.
Although Westborough High School does have programs in place to help some students, it is clear that the school community has some work to do. The student body depends on the faculty to support them in this high-stress school environment. The teachers, administrators, counselors, and students need to continue to further promote and foster a school community that supports the mental health of all students.