Mental Health and Education: Where is the Balance?

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For common work arrangements, Singapore’s contractual hours of work for adults are up to nine hours daily. Yet most Singaporean secondary school students reach school at seven in the morning and leave at six in the afternoon, clocking in around ten hours every day. Why is it that we spend more time on schoolwork than we actually spend at home?

A significant cause of this is the fact that education has become a huge source of stress for Singaporean students, with near-constant pressure to excel being placed upon them. This pressure comes from parents, peers, media and the students themselves. it is not surprising that this leads to them taking up unmanageable commitments in the hopes of building up a good portfolio to secure the elusive Singaporean dream of a ‘well-paying, cushy job’. However, the road to this dream is not as smooth-sailing as it seems.

Academic stress faced during this journey is a real problem, with a 2017 study by the OECD reflecting that 86% of Singaporean students were worried about poor grades, as compared to only 66% across all OECD countries. This level of stress, coupled with the competitive culture inherent within Singaporean schools, has led to excessive emphasis on academic performance and declining mental health amongst students. This is evident from the increased number of students seeking help from the National Institute of Mental Health for school-related stress.

Competitive culture within education can be seen in many aspects of school life: comparing results with your classmates for the reassurance that your scores are higher, being compared to your siblings by your parents, and feeling down when your friends seem to glide through tests while you struggle. This simmering jealousy is something that we have all definitely experienced but are never willing to admit. However, ironically, this unwillingness to admit this even to ourselves is the reason why many students continue to obsessively compare themselves to their peers.

Where does this culture stem from, you may ask? I believe it comes from subconscious peer pressure and students’ own internalised desires to excel. For example, many students in secondary school tend to go to bed late at night in order to complete work. However, they do not realise that this is wholly unnecessary. Seeing friends pull all-nighters normalises this behaviour of getting inadequate sleep, causing students to think that it is ‘okay’ when in reality, it is unhealthy.

This also means that students are plagued with insecurities when they have not been studying as much as their peers. This can be seen from how the Singapore Youth Resilience Survey conducted in 2011 cited school as the largest cause of stress for students, followed by pressure from parents and then peer pressure. These three elements are interconnected within our education system.

How so, you may wonder? Well, pressure from parents, exists in the form of good intentions. Many parents in Singapore have aspirations of sending their children to prestigious universities so they may have fulfilling careers. This desire manifests itself as pressure on their children to excel in school and as Singaporean parents’ favourite form of investment: tuition. Once students have been exposed to the competitive culture of never-ending excellence both in and out of school, that students begin to develop these sentiments for themselves. 

This means that they begin to set unrealistic expectations in terms of academics. However, these aspirations are almost never strictly academic. Something interesting to note about Singaporean students is that they are expected to excel not only at academics, but also at a creative skill as well. You would be hard-pressed to find a Singaporean student who has never gone for a music, dance or writing class before. 

Such skills develop areas of ‘holistic development’ and allow students to learn something new. However, more often than not, this skill becomes a point for comparison as well. With exceeding pressure to accumulate external achievements, students need to grapple with balancing these elements. You can see this from the DSA application process in Singapore, where twelve-year-old students are expected to have participated in enough competitions to secure entry into a so-called ‘top-tier’ school in Secondary 1.

It is definitely difficult to prioritize such tasks especially since all activities seem to be equally as important for one’s future. Thus, attempting to deal with the stress of juggling all these activities can lead to mental health issues amongst youth. It is no surprise that a Singapore Mental Health Study conducted in 2016 showed that one in seven Singaporeans have experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime.

Despite the fact that we have limited hours in a day, students do still love to indulge in their own recuperative activities. However, this can feel like a waste of valuable productivity time, leading to feelings of guilt and self-doubt. It is easy to believe that time spent on yourself is time wasted, however that is simply not the case. The sad truth is that even though students set aside time for themselves, it is hard for them to truly enjoy that time whenever they think of the mound of work that awaits them afterwards.

This issue of guilt is exacerbated by the lack of discussion on mental health issues in Singapore. Feelings of guilt and self-doubt are meant to be brushed away in pursuit of greater academic achievement and students readily compare their caffeine-intake, hours of sleep and the time spent on panicking over exams. When entire cohorts of students think that it is perfectly healthy to cry the morning of an exam simply because you think that you are unprepared, then it really can be said that students’ mental health is not being adequately taken care of.

With academic stressors constantly increasing, it is important to put discussions of mental health in the forefront. Schools may remain stressful, the choice of whether or not we accept that stress as a regular part of our lives will always be ours.

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