Validating our generation’s massive ‘burnout’

by Bethany Pham, Staff Writer

Burnout can feel unescapable. Illustration by Vivian Le

All throughout Fountain Valley High School (FVHS), seeing students trudging across campus, snoozing or discussing how burdened they are with stress are quite typical. At around this time of the school year, students feel they have been worked to the bone and claim they are “burned out.”

American psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in a 1974 psychology journal. His research attributed symptoms encompassing mental and physical exhaustion, headaches, sleeplessness, emotional volatility and depression to occupational burnout. As its name suggests, occupational burnout primarily refers to extensive stress with one’s job, but some have related this same condition to today’s students.

“School, homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, repeat — that’s what it can be for some of these students,” said Noelle Leonard, PhD, a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN).

The aforementioned information has an undeniable impact on students’ emotional, physical, and psychological health—its effects are quite visible at FVHS. How often do we see, know of, or personally experience the uber stress, exhaustive classes and massive workloads that FVHS students endure every day? Here, students hire tutors to raise perfectly fine B’s and A minuses to Ivy League-level grades, have parents hounding at students to work harder than they ever have before, are taking Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes when they shouldn’t and have countless extracurriculars that keep them working when they should be relaxing.

Eventually, some students simply shut down.

“We’re giving them nothing to actually cope with this, no constant relationships, and maybe one guidance counselor,” said Bo Paulle, a sociology professor at the University of Amsterdam and author of Toxic Schools.

Students are expected to live up to the unbelievable success stories of our peers, our relatives and even our dreams. And as expectations rise, so does the pressure, and so do students’ anxiety. More and more teens across the nation are turning to detrimental coping techniques to deal with burnout. Suicide in the U.S., especially among teenagers, have reached an all time high. Substance abuse, self medication and self-harm are not uncommon among high schoolers nationwide. Even when students do get through high school and find their way to college, trends show that graduation rates aren’t promising.

“Colleges are complaining that kids are disengaged, they’re dropping out, taking a long time to graduate. It’s not developmentally appropriate for them to work so hard,” said Marya Gwadz, PhD, another senior research scientist at the NYUCN.

And so lies the major question behind all this pressure: What do we need to do to prepare high-stressed high schoolers for college?

Experts suggest to not blame parents so much for students’ burnout and rather shift the blame to school culture. Paulle said, “School cultures reflect the greater competitive environment of global capitalism. Our current system is a warped manifestation of our general anxiety about downward social mobility and what it takes to move up.”

Even if the problem is focused in on the general area of school culture, that opens up another can of worms. What constitutes school culture, then? How are schools like FVHS expected to change their norms of hard work, their values for perfection and their hopes of a future in the Ivy League? As Paulle said before, school cultures reflect the greater competitive environment of global capitalism, and how does society expect the world to change?