Tunnel-vision: How high school detaches students from believing in positive life prospects


Elinor Amir-Lobel, Guest Writer

There is no doubt that the prevalence of mental health disorders in high school students is a constantly worsening issue of unprecedented proportions, but how does high school’s unnatural detachment of students from reality impact their well-being?

According to recent findings from the CDC, over 33% of high school students around the country report feelings of sadness and hopelessness and, even more alarmingly, in 2019, over 1 in 6 adolescents reported having made a specific plan to commit suicide. Both of these statistics represent a major increase, over 40%, from reports conducted in 2009. These numbers seem to be perpetually growing and prevailing despite a powerful surge in new teenage mental health awareness.

Most research studies focus on the mental health impacts of stress, stemming from classes, grades, and social lives specifically. While these areas of focus and concerns are well-founded and necessary, there appears to be a lack of review of the very nature of modern high schools’ tendencies to reshape the complete reality of students, their lives both internally and externally relating to school.

Modern high schools, particularly those with a strong emphasis on college preparation and competitive achievement, can establish in students an inescapable tunnel-vision of sorts, alienating them from believing in the prospects of positive, non-work or school related, facets of life, both present and future—their lives now, as students, as well as later, as adults. It seems that even when discussing mental health and non-educational goals—healthy sleep schedules, proper diet, exercise, and stress coping skills—the underlying message brings those goals back around to supporting and centering academic success. There is no discussion or even subtle reminder that school does not always have to be the absolute center of the universe for students, and that fiscal or career-oriented success is not necessarily the end-all-be-all of life satisfaction.

While it may be argued that it is not a school’s job to re-enforce non-academic-centric ideologies, as it is, in fact, a school, this argument is fundamentally flawed once taking into account that circumstances, primarily created by these same schools, have placed academics as the sole focus in student’s minds. If, therefore, the message does not come from the school, from where else could it stem? High school students are not inclined to be receptive to any plea of relaxation, so long as the demands of school and grades persist in the same steady incline of pressure and desperate need.

Keeping with the reality that students are unlikely to change their behavior and perceptions as long as demands are the same, it follows that the only way to achieve any real, positive change in students’ mental health would be to simultaneously lighten the pressure of those demands and relate messages of external positive life satisfaction for both the present and future; it would appear simply hypocritical and insensitive to attempt the latter without the former. 

All of this is not to say, of course, that academics should not be a strong focus of students’ lives, however it is not healthy nor reasonable that a young person should believe any one grade, college acceptance, or missing assignment will make or break their lives as a whole, and students should never be forced, under this assumption, to prioritize academics over happiness, hope, and health. 

Photo credit: Country Day School Costa Rica