I went to the doctor to understand what was going on, and she just told me, ‘oh you’re simply stressed, it’s nothing’ – I felt like she did not care at all.”
Frederikke Lindhardt is 17 years old and currently enrolled in a two-year upper secondary (gymnasium) education, HF. It’s her second attempt at gymnasium: she dropped out of a three-year STX programme after only six months.
“I got too stressed out, slept too long, and often felt sick,” she explains.
“I didn’t like being in class because there were 28 girls who I felt did not like me because of how I dressed or what laptop I owned. Most of the girls ignored me because I did not have the same things as them,” she said, adding that about ten other girls in her year also dropped out.
But while social pressure was the main cause of her stress, it was made worse due to a lack of understanding and support from her teachers.
“People always think I am lazy simply because I am a teenager. They never see what is behind the stress.”
Among the most stressed
Linghart’s experience of stress and social anxiety is hardly unique – on the contrary. But while we expect that teenagers will experience stress as they strive for the high grades they need for university while also holding down social and extracurricular activities, they might be suffering more than we have imagined.
University of Aarhus researchers have investigated the stress levels of students at two gymnasiums in Aalborg. They found that all the students in the second year of the three-year programme were experiencing higher-than-average levels of stress.
More than half of the students were experiencing the same level of stress as the most stressed-out 20 percent of Danes.
These findings confirm a 2014 government survey, Ungdomsprofilen, which found that 39 percent of gymnasium students reported feeling stressed at least once a week. 10 percent reported that they felt stressed every day.
“Students are under pressure, both academically and socially,” says Anne Maj Nielsen, a co-author of the University of Aarhus report Stress i gymnasiet (Stress in high school).
“Those affected by stress want to perform as well as possible. They want to go on to further education and know that it requires high grades. But unlike many adults, students cannot choose to relax every once in a while. They have to hand in a number of written assignments at a time while also preparing for their other subjects. Students affected by stress can have difficulty prioritising.”
This is certainly the case for 17-year-old Silas Frisenette, who dreams of studying psychology after he completes gymnasium. To do so, he needs to maintain an average grade of 11.5 out of 12 – an incredibly difficult goal.
“The Danish system focuses a lot on exams and grades rather than on the learning process itself,” he says. “You need good grades to get into university, and the competition is fierce.”
But the pressure of academic accomplishment is just one of the forces at play.
“I know three people in my class who want to quit because of social anxiety. Stress is often not just about the schoolwork, but a combination of a number of different situations, including problems with classmates,” Frisenette says.
Mads Panny has taught teenagers at a gymnasium in Viborg for the past ten years. He has witnessed a sharp uptick in the level of stress his students experience, and has tried to understand the cause. His theory is that after the 2008 financial crisis, students came under more pressure to live an outwardly perfect life.
“In the 1990s, there was a tendency to blame society rather than yourself for most problems. But since the financial crisis, there has been greater emphasis on being successful and on blaming oneself for not reaching certain goals,” he said.
“So students today often feel like they are not doing enough. And because many not only like to keep up a vibrant social life on the side but also have to work to earn money, they have many arenas where they want to be successful, which makes school an increasingly stressful place to be.”
Panny emphasised that the Danish upper secondary school system isn’t in itself to blame, as it is no harder than other European systems.
“Obviously the grading system makes students stressed, but I honestly believe that the issue of being constantly online today represents one of the biggest causes of stress among students,” he noted.
Frisenette and Lindhardt confirm Panny’s suspicion about the role of social media in fostering stress. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are distractions that keep them from their studies, while also encouraging social comparisons and jealousy.
“The problem with competition is substantial – being online and never being able to disconnect from the rest of the world,” says Frisenette. “If I don’t reply to someone’s message they ask me what I am doing. You never get a total break. You can get emails on Fridays, which is stressful when all you want to do is relax.”
According to Nielsen, these social and academic burdens often intermingle. Her research found that students also feel pressure to ally themselves with other high achievers in the class in order to curry favour with teachers.
“It means that many young people are constantly under pressure to perform both academically and socially, and are anxious about being rejected by peers if they aren’t seen as good enough.”
Need for parental support
But perhaps most critical is the support that students receive from their parents and teachers. According to Nielsen, the lack of support many students describe can be explained by a generational change that has made it hard for parents to relate to their children’s situation.
“One of the issues young people cite as being worst is when parents or teachers do not validate their feelings of stress. Many parents think their children’s experience of school is similar to their own, when there were lower expectations for young people, and getting through upper secondary was easier,” says Nielsen.
Both Lindhardt and Frisenette recognised this phenomenon.
“When I tell my parents I am stressed, they think it is just part of being in school,” says Frisenette. “When I confront them, they just say, well, it’s just natural and part of it. I really feel like this issue is not being taken seriously.”
Panny agrees that parents and teachers need to be better at supporting students.
“One big problem is that parents today have an old-fashioned view of youth as being lazy and not doing the right thing. I often see that they have not yet adjusted to the fact that the lives of young people today are dramatically different than what they used to be.” M