POLL: Mental illness rise during HSC exams

The Higher School Certificate fosters an overly competitive culture that causes a spike in mental health admissions in the Hunter, the region’s youth services have said.

Mental health services have braced themselves for a surge in calls for assistance over the next two months as students struggle with the pressure of the end-of-year-12 exams and results period.

Students are also turning to worrying exam preparation strategies to cope with the stress and try to get an edge.

Hunter Lifeline telephone counsellor manager Annette Cain said at this time each year Lifeline had to roster on more volunteers to deal with a surge in calls from stressed-out students.

She said many students failed to cope with the competitive culture of the credential.

‘‘It’s the same every year – exam weeks and the day the results are handed back always coincide with a jump in calls,’’ Ms Cain said.

‘‘I think that if we’re going to educate like this then we need parents and teachers to be trained to detect and provide support for youth mental health issues.’’

Youth mental health group Hunter Headspace psychologist Kasey Ackers said the whole exam environment provoked anxiety in teens.

‘‘Even the best students are unable to work at their peak,’’ Dr Ackers said.

‘‘It’s too heavily weighted and far too stressful for a group of young people to experience.’’

Secondary Principals Association Hunter chairman Peter Sheargold said there would always be some students who had anxiety, pressure to follow in their parents’ footsteps, or were generally unable to cope with life.

‘‘There are kids who are coping very well and pretty self assured about the whole thing,’’ he said.

‘‘We have to get the message to kids that there are many avenues to success and the HSC is not the only way to get to uni.

‘‘We try to do this and at the same time push them hard enough to get the result they want.’’

Newcastle Child and Adolescent Mental Health senior clinical psychologist Jennifer Drinkwater said while the final tests might be a convenient academic marker for universities they could be harmful for young people.

‘‘It can cloud a young person’s sense of achievement,’’ she said.

‘‘It makes it difficult for them to appreciate their skills and values in other areas.’’

Adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg said that 40per cent of students experienced some psychological problem during the Higher School Certificate.

While the use of unconventional study tactics, such as caffeinated pills or ‘‘study drugs’’ were far from endemic, experts agreed that the elevated pressure coincided with elevated risks.

Newcastle herb shop Happy Herbs retail assistant B.J. Futter said he had noted an increasing amount of students looking for medicinal or herbal so-called ‘‘smart-drugs’’.

‘‘A large portion of our business is made up of HSC students buying study aids,’’ Mr Futter said. 

Parents also appeared to support these measures.

‘‘We don’t sell without parental approval but, even then, a large number of our customers are parents buying for their kids,’’ Mr Futter said.

Students also told the Newcastle Herald of peers turning to binge eating, drinking and even obsessive exercising to cope.

Victoria University’s Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living research fellow Dr Simon Outram said there was a ‘‘culture of competition’’ emerging in academia similar to the sporting field.

‘‘We see the same trends trickling into academia, study and the workplace as people become more competitive and work longer hours,’’ he said.

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