It’s the test that’s six years in the making, but how is the pressure affecting our youth?
It was morning, still dark outside as Kat* sits at her desk, head down. Books and loose scribbled pages are piled up around her. The cover of one Excel textbook reads ‘HSC Economics – Your step by step guide to HSC success. A blanket of Post-It notes covers the wall with neatly handwritten motivational quotes, others displaying mathematical formulas and essay writing tips.
The only indicator of any life outside of studying is a photo sitting in the corner of six young girls grinning, dressed in costume for their last high school swimming carnival.
Behind the fun memories lie a very different picture. More than 75,000 students will sit for the Higher School Certificate (HSC) this October. Like many of her peers, Kat wants to go to university, but competition is rapidly increasing for young people like Kat; she is part of the proposed 90% of students in 2015 making it all the way to year 12 or equivalent in Australia. This is compared to 78% in 2010, according to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
Many may think that only adults and university graduates get stressed about the failing economy and job shortages, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Fellow year 12 student and prefect Mel*, 17, is one of many school kids sharing the same fear.
“I don’t want to rely on my parents when I am older,” the Canterbury Girls High School student says. “I don’t want to be part of that growing percentage of jobless people.
“I get told by my parents that uni is the way to go in getting far in life and I understand why they are like that. But I feel like right now, with the amount of jobless graduates, maybe uni isn’t the right move.”
Hyperventilation reactions are not uncommon for Mel. When she did an HSC maths examination last school term, the anxiety sent her into a whirlpool of dread and self-doubt.
“After the exam was finished, and [we were] asked to put the pens down, my whole world stopped for a minute,” she recalls. “My whole body was just vibrating and I wasn’t really aware of what was happening, just that my breathing was difficult.”
Another time, when Mel was doing an essay for English, she experienced a similar panic attack at home. She was unable to do any work for the day.
Statistics from ABS’ 2007 National Survery of Mental Health and Wellbeing showed that over a quarter of young people aged 16-24 suffered from symptoms of some form of mental disorder.
To put a price tag on this issue, mental illness in people aged 12-25 costed the nation $10.6 billion in 2009, according to a study by Access Economics. The study also revealed that a disturbing figure of only 25% of people with a mental illness aged 16-24 received some form of treatment.
The prefect doesn’t want to tell anyone about her stress, least of all her parents.
“I feel like they don’t understand,” she discloses.
For Kat, 17, the demands to perform well and the uncertainty about her life post-HSC were so great that she considered dropping out of school.
“I just felt useless,” she says. “I was doing badly in every subject… [I thought] maybe I should just drop out.”
In 2002, Tony Vinson, who chaired an inquiry into the funding of public education, asserted there was a “gross inadequacy in the ratio of counsellors to young people”. He concluded that a majority of counsellors were overwhelmed by administrative work, rather than engaging with students. Professor Vinson advocated the state government to enforce a ratio of one counsellor for every 1000 students.
13 years later, the NSW government announced this month that an extra 236 counselling staff will be added to the existing 850 counsellors in public schools, a scheme estimated to cost the state $80.7 million. If implemented, the ratio will be brought to one counsellor for every 750 students.
Scott Gould, a registered psychologist who has worked as a school counsellor for 15 years, welcomes the news and believes that having sufficient mental health professionals in schools is an integral part in the overall strategy to achieve student well-being.
“This is a step in the right direction to have qualified school counsellors ready to respond to students experiencing major distress,” he says.
“School mental health programs are vital to give students the opportunity to look within, and identify dysfunctional thoughts and feelings before they begin to get in the way.”
He says HSC students going through anxiety may feel reluctant to accept help, particularly when cultural norms dictate that doing so is a form of weakness.
Despite her situation, Kat hesitated considerably before using the school’s counselling services.
“I just ignored it because I thought ‘I can deal with it myself, this won’t help me’.”
However, she admitted that speaking to the counsellor about her stress had helped.
“[Counselling] opened my mind,” she says. “It provided me with more certainty.”
Anna Matos, Careers Advisor at Canterbury Girls, says there are many facilities at the school to assist students make it through the HSC, including personal learning plans, senior student support programs during lunch breaks and study skill workshops.
“It’s a big stressful year for them and we are trying to stick in their head that it’s bigger than what it actually should be, so we try to alleviate by offering support programs here at school,” she says.
When students approach Ms Matos for advice on post-school options, most students tend to divulge what’s on their mind – turning the interview into a counselling session.
“[I try to] normalise the idea that they are being overwhelmed because a lot of the time, it’s ‘I don’t think I can take it’ and I always say that it happens every year.”
School captain of Canterbury Girls, Andrea*, 17, says that the negative thoughts caused by stress stop her from focusing on her work. The pervasive idea that the HSC is a pre-indication of life success and fear of judgment from peers causes her to imagine things that are out of her control, such as not being able to achieve the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) she wants.
“It sometimes feels like doing well in the HSC is the only way you can succeed in life,” she says. “That’s why it is so daunting.”
It isn’t uncommon for students to fail in achieving the ATAR needed to study the university course they want, Mr Gould notes. But rather than giving up entirely, many have found alternative pathways to reach their goals, despite it taking a few extra years.
“It is worth remembering that the HSC is a means to an end,” he says. “It does not define your worth to your family or your community; it is simply a hurdle requirement to get you into university and post-school training options.”
Though Mel is fully aware of this, she can’t help but feel a little lost.
“At 17-18, I feel that we are expected to know what we want after [the] HSC,” she says. “But we really don’t.”
“There’s so much more to life than uni and a degree.”
But Mel does have a secret grand plan.
“I want to travel back to my country, Myanmar. I also want to volunteer there. Maybe I’ll have an epiphany then.” – Alison Cheung
*Names have been changed to protect the students’ identities. Top photo taken by Alison Cheung.