Exam stress at an all-time high? That pressure is needed to set you up for life

The epidemic of exam stress is more likely due to the medicalisation of children’s existential experience than the result of classroom pressure, argues sociologist Frank Furedi. One of the unintended consequences of adult society’s attempt to immunise children from the burdens of life is to pathologise pressure

Frank Furedi
Thursday 14 May 2015 16:30

During the past two decades the normal tensions and apprehensions associated with schooling have been transformed into medical and mental health problems. So it is not surprising that we hear from the NSPCC and ChildLine that in a 12 month period the number of students who raised concerns about exam stress in counselling sessions has increased by 200 per cent.

In recent years such dramatic headline-grabbing figures about an epidemic of examination related stress in schools are frequently associated with claims that children are under unprecedented pressure due to the proliferation of testing and the burden of schoolwork. There is no doubt that children often voice their existential concerns about school life through a psychological vocabulary. Unlike children today, when I went to primary school we did not use words like stress, trauma or depression to describe our feelings. The epidemic of exam stress is far more likely to be the outcome of the medicalisation of children’s existential experience than the outcome of the intensification of classroom pressure.

One of the unintended consequences of adult society’s attempt to immunise children from the burdens of life is to pathologise pressure. Consequently western children are often socialised to perceive pressure as a potential marker for a disease. This trend is particularly striking in education where youngsters’ existential insecurity is often discussed and interpreted through a medical diagnosis. The emergence of the diagnosis of school phobia and test anxiety reflect a tendency towards the diseasing of education.

Regrettably even relatively routine banal challenges facing children have been re-interpreted as a potential source of psychological distress. When I began to do research for my book Wasted: Why Education Is Not Educating, I was genuinely shocked to discover that in numerous places the transition from primary to secondary school has been represented as a major traumatic event for children. Instead of depicting the process of starting big school as an exciting experience many children are offered transitional counselling for what was for centuries regarded as normal dimension of life.

Transitional counselling, like many forms of therapeutic interventions, has a habit of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once pupils pick up on the idea that going to secondary school is a challenging and traumatic experience many of them will regard going to a new school as a problem rather than an opportunity. In such circumstances their normal anxieties and insecurities towards being able to adapt to this new experience will be internalised as a mental health issue. Regrettably, a growing number of children experience what ought to be an exciting moment in their development as one of emotional disorientation.

The rebranding of normal pre-exam nerves as the malaise of examination related stress has created a dynamic towards the constant expansion of this condition. It is worth noting that once exam pressure becomes medicalised it turns into a problem for life. Even grown-up university students are now afflicted with this condition.

That is why university students seeking counselling before exams has become a regular and growing feature of higher education. The announcement earlier this week by Bristol University that it has set up a puppy room to help stressed students to relax and stay captures the therapy fixated zeitgeist of our era.

Some argue that the therapeutic turn of education represents a positive and sensitive response to the needs of children under pressure. Sadly despite its best intentions the medicalisation of education actually becomes a source of further emotional disorientation and distress. Why? Because through representing pressure – in all of its different forms- as a risk to health – young people are rendered powerless and incapable of exercising agency.

As every reader will know schooling can be a difficult and at time emotionally distressing experience. But turning normal existential insecurities into a mental health problem simply undermines children’s resilience and capacity to deal with them. Advocacy groups intent on raising awareness about an epidemic of exam stress may well unintentionally contribute to its further intensification.

Many children do suffer from mental health problems and we should do our best to provide good quality care to deal with their conditions. We should also remember that the constant imperative to medicalise exam anxiety serves to trivialise the experience of those suffering from mental illness.

Professor Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent. He is the author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting, Culture of Fear and Authority: A Sociological History

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