Exam stress could be making depression and anxiety worse for vulnerable young people, say experts. Tests are certainly challenging, but rhetoric may have an impact on the way young people perceive exams. And as such, teachers, parents and guardians may be teaching them ‘to be afraid’ rather than encouraging them ‘to see exams as a positive challenge’.
The 2018 survey by Mission Australia showed that young people’s main concerns were coping with stress (43 per cent) and school (34 per cent). Another survey conducted by ReachOut, a mental health organization, highlighted 65.1 per cent of youth reported worrying levels of exam stress in 2018, compared to 51.2 per cent in 2017. Researchers noted that perceived ‘epidemic’ of common mental disorders is most likely explained by the increasing numbers of affected patients driven by increasing population sizes. Additional factors that may explain this perception include greater public awareness and the use of terms such as anxiety and depression in a context where they do not represent clinical disorders. This implies that while some young people have serious anxiety issues, others may be perceiving normal levels of stress as anxiety.
A 2016 US study of appraisals is brought to the fore. Students in one group were told emotional arousal before an exam, was normal and would better help them face a challenge; another group- the control group, wasn’t provided with any strategies. Researchers found the first group experienced less anxiety and performed better than the second group. They argued the reduced stress was due to the first group appraising their elevated heart rates and other anxiety signs as functional, than threatening. What this showed is that it was the appraisal of students’ feelings that determined how stressed they actually were than the event (exam) itself. Exams might be appraised as ‘stressful’ because youth perceive them as a threat to their future, such as their ability to get a job. And in some cases, it can be a threat to students’ self-worth. If self-worth is tied to academic success, it is at risk, as academic success becomes critical for the young person.