Time doesn’t seem to add up.
I spend seven hours in school a day and at least an hour getting ready for and driving to school. I spend, on average, two hours after school per day, although some days I’ll be at the school for an additional six hours. I get about six hours of homework per night, a little less than an hour per class. This amount tends to increase if I have a project or studying to do.
I try to get six hours of sleep a night although usually I’m pulling four or five.
I spend an hour a day on chores and other family obligations.
If you haven’t done the math already, that adds up to about twenty-three hours.
I have one hour in my day left.
That leaves an hour to work on college applications, have a job, take care of personal care and hygiene, eat, take care of pets, exercise, learn how to drive, study for standardized tests, do volunteer work (it'll look good on those college applications!), and maybe, if the stars all align, I’ll be able to have a social life, or do activities that I actually want to do.
Now, I know I’m just one drop in an ocean of students, one lone voice in a choir, but I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this simple arithmetic.
Sleep Is For The Weak
Sleep is a hot commodity at my school. And, if you can’t brag about how much you slept the night before, you’ll brag about how little you slept. It’s become a social status point of some sorts.
“You’ll never believe it, I got seven hours last night!”
“What?! How?! I got three. Let’s hear it for ‘team no sleep!”
Through the hallways and the lunch tables, students discuss covert ways of getting shut-eye during class, or in quiet places around the school. It’s not uncommon to find students trying to get hall passes to the nurse’s office so that they can sleep in peace. Kids speak of their crazed sleep schedule, some stopping homework at 10:00 PM, where they then sleep for five hours until 3:00 AM, where they wake up, finish their homework, and go to school.
According to the Sleep Foundation, teens need about eight to ten hours of sleep per night. Only about 15% of teens make this amount every night. Like I said earlier, I’m pulling about half that amount, and I make an effort to get enough sleep.
While many parents and teachers across the nation point fingers at cell phones, for example, my personal experience has led me to believe that on weeknights, it is not technology keeping teenagers awake, but homework. A common refrain echoed through the hallways is “I have more work that I actually have time to do it.”
Caffeine has become a lifestyle, a quick way to get a kick before first period starts at 7:33 AM. Teens are guzzling it down, many kids at my school toting around large 32 ounce water bottles filled with lukewarm coffee. There’s a kid in my Spanish class who downs a Mountain Dew every morning, and another in my friend’s first period history class who chugs an entire Monster Energy before the Pledge of Allegiance.
The side effects of caffeine consumption are alarming. According to CaffeineInformer.com, this stimulant can create a higher risk for heart attacks in young adults, along with a host of other heart problems. Not only that, but caffeine can also put users at risk for ulcers, infertility, and a greater dependence on caffeine.
The real problems start when teens are ready to go to bed, many teens finding that they simply can’t fall asleep when they want to. As a result, over-the-counter sleep medications have become a trend at my school.
This cycle of lost sleep now places students in a precarious position where they need a drug to wake up, and another to fall asleep. Many are dependent on these aides, a dependency that could last a lifetime.
Sleep deprivation has become an epidemic of sorts in high schools, and this is only the tip of a much deeper, and darker iceberg.
The Push to Succeed
The American lifestyle is more competitive than ever. Standardized tests have turned education into a rat race filled with points, scores, and ranks. Students are constantly comparing class ranks and GPA’s trying to assure themselves that they’re keeping up, that they’re not falling behind.
This type of environment breeds a high level of anxiety and stress, sometimes pushing students to extreme lengths. Among the AP-level students last year, it was well established that there was an underground substance ring that was utilized by stressed out scholars.
In one day last year, I encountered two different students having mental breakdowns. Actual mental breakdowns, in which they completely fell apart, due to the stress that was being piled on them.
It was a few months ago that me and my friends were sitting around a bonfire following a dance at my school. We talked about the usual, relationships, the latest Twitter update, but we soon fell into the subject of school, and the stress and pressure we had all been feeling. It was then that one teenager, about fifteen years old, came forward about a class that had pushed him too far.
It was his favorite class, one that he had dedicated himself to, but the teacher was demanding, pushing him and pushing him until…
“I almost did it guys. Twice, actually. I was that close.”
“You know. Taking my life.”
We fell into a stunned silence, as the fire crackled away. This kid wasn’t chronically depressed, nor did he have a history of suicidal behaviors. And yet, the stress and pressure he had felt had pushed him far too close to the edge. Other stories started coming out that night, of near-attempts, and those who had tried it, but thankfully lived to tell the tale.
That night, I felt like I had stumbled into a dark underworld, where stories like these were all too common, and quickly swept under the rug.
Later that weekend, I received a text from a friend saying that someone we knew was in the hospital. The family thought it may have been an overdose.
Later on, an attempt was ruled out (they suspected that it was an accident) but the stomach dropping feeling of receiving a message like the one I had lingered with me, as a grim reminder of what could have been.
Because the scariest part of the situation wasn’t that it happened. It was how fast we moved past denying it was an attempt. We all knew it was far too likely.
One girl in my English class last year provided a haunting testimony into what she called “The Real Secret Lives of American Teenagers”. There, she delved into the online world, where some teens feel more alive there than they do when they are disconnected. However, as I discovered the night I spent at the bonfire, there are secrets to this new and innovative digital world that we live in.
The girl in my class talked about the online friends she’s has, and her relationships with people she’s never been able to meet in real life. However, one particular line has stuck with me for almost two years now.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been up until four in the morning trying to talk someone out of suicide.”
At that moment, the classroom fell into a stony silence. Because no student is equipped to be a therapist in such a dire moment. No student should have to be a therapist. And yet, who else will step up if they don’t? Who else, besides a student’s peers, will hear their cries for help and see the warning signs?
In my experience, the family does not read the signs.
The school does not read the signs, either.
A survey from the Washington, D.C.-based American Psychological Association found that teens that mirror adults’ high stress levels are “potentially setting themselves up for a future of chronic stress and chronic illness”. Michael Bradley, a psychologist specializing in teens was quoted as saying “…I will fall back on the fact that hard numbers tell us kids are more anxious and depressed than they've ever been."
I can’t tell you how many of my friends have suffered mentally over the past four years in high school, and I’m sure there are many more that I don’t know about. This propensity is alarming, actually, quite frankly, terrifying.
Where are We Going?
These heightened levels of anxiety and stress can be affected by lack of sleep, which is a result of the demands put in place by schools today. In the end, students are stuck in vicious cycles that cannot be broken unless change is made, and quickly.
Coming from a student who has lived through more than three years of low sleep and high stress, I want to make clear how urgent this problem we face is. Too many friends of mine have fallen from the chipper freshmen they once were, to exhausted seniors who are praying to make it to the bell without falling asleep.
Being a teenager is already stressful, as we take on more adult responsibilities, navigate the complicated relationships in a high school, and try to make sense of the world around us. I didn't even touch on other sources of stress a teenager may encounter, such as financial, family, health, or social.
Schools should be a safe haven, not a fortress of dread. When will the we realize that there is a problem with our teens and the demands being placed on us? We need better counseling and a better educator understanding of just how fast workloads pile up.
We are far from lazy, and I am not one to complain of high-demands. But there are days I miss meals to do work, or days where my eyes will start watering on the way to school, because I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or the night before that, or the night before that.
It’s not a matter of work ethic, but rather simply, health.
How many more will be lost before this problem is faced head on?