We should talk about school trauma

It comes at least once a week, a dream in which I never graduated college and am back in school. It’s midterm and I’ve just realized that I completely forgot about a class I’ve signed up for. Or maybe I’m in high school and I’ve overslept for the fifth day in a row. Or it’s some alternate universe where I’m both working the job I have now and still in college, and I don’t have time to do both.

If you search for recurring school dreams on google, you’ll find many people that are stuck in this same rut. There are plenty of theories for its commonality: it’s a metaphor about the anxieties we’re experiencing in our life right now, it’s a symptom of living in a meritocracy,or maybe it’s our brain preparing us for the tasks ahead.

Everyone’s avoiding the elephant in the room: what if school really was just that traumatic to us? Is it really natural for high school students to sleep only 6.9 hours each night? For 86.4% of college students to feel overwhelmed by all they have to do? For 1 in 6 college students to have been diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the past year?

I went to a great school, Hanover College. I loved so much of my time there, it almost feels like a betrayal to point a finger at the institution. But things weren’t always happy. Many professors were disconnected from students’ realities. Expectations were high, understanding was low, and mental health services were in a tiny corner of an old, dark building. I should have gone to talk with them, but setting up an appointment was intimidating, and friends that did use the counseling services offered by the college had lukewarm endorsements: a chronic anxiety sufferer was taught an exercise to “focus her chakras,” a friend suffering with depression and suicidal thoughts was told that medication would not work for her until she was out of college, since college was causing her depression.

I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder when I locked up during my first semester of grad school. Expectations were nowhere near what they’d been at Hanover; I should have been able to handle my work easily, but I got a little bit behind and suddenly the world was crashing down on me. I spent weeks in a high-stress state before finally seeking help from a doctor. It felt like an infection that had been festering since high school had finally come to a head.

This isn’t meant to be an indictment of Hanover’s mental health services, though they probably need better ones. What I want is an acknowledgement of why students are needing such services in the first place, and not just at Hanover. Much has been said of the current mental health crisis facing college students, but theories alluding to its cause are fairly weak.

Something is inherently wrong in the way we educate our adolescents. It’s time to start looking at not just how to treat student mental illness, but how to prevent their needing it in the first place.

So what is the cause?

Well, let’s talk about failure, because that’s what this anxiety is all about. What does failure mean in the real world? Most of the time, it’s something that can be recovered from. Even a lost job can be replaced. In my experience, there are tons of second chances.

In school, which should be training for the real world, there should be even more second chances, right? Well, no. It certainly doesn’t feel that way. In high school as an advanced student, you’re trying to get into your dream college, and you’re told over and over that C’s might as well be F’s and B’s probably won’t cut it either. Once you’re in college, there’s a whole lot of money riding on your success. Student loans that could pay for a house are paying for your experience in this school, or maybe you’re indebted to parents and grandparents that you daren’t let down. So learn that subject in two months and do well on that test or presentation or paper or all three because failure is life-changing. Failure cannot be an option.

Why can’t kids fail gracefully? Does school have to be this stressful? I don’t think so. Child-centered learning has received a lot of attention in recent years. Many blogs by homeschooling moms tout the benefits of an education that trusts the child to learn because they want to, not because they’re forced to. We can use these theories to help our high school and college students. Imagine a college without a time limit, with tests that could be taken multiple times. School that focuses more on actual grasp of the subject instead of grades at the end of a semester.

Some might say this is too radical a change. Radical solutions are required in situations this dire. We are talking about generations of people with mental illness. People are killing themselves because of our school system.

Just because everyone is traumatized by school doesn’t mean it’s okay for school to be traumatic. Let’s work towards a solution.


Anxiety is a serious problem, and you deserve to be taken seriously about your anxiety. Visit http://www.adaa.org/finding-help for help finding a therapist or just support from others.

If you’re considering suicide, help can be found at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or by calling 1–800–273–8255.


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