The pressure and anxiety felt by students ahead of crucial tests such the HSC or VCE can be massive and, in some cases, exacerbate mental health issues that might be lurking beneath the surface.
Last year, research from Mission Australia’s Youth Survey found that more and more young Australians are seeing mental health as the country’s most pressing issue. In that year, concerns related to mental health went up by 10%.
Asked about the top personal concerns, 43% of some 28,000 respondents cited coping with stress while 34% cited school and study problems.
Another recent report also backs this finding.
A survey of Australian Education Union’s members released in September found that around 80% of school staff who served as respondents said that mental health issues are affecting student’s short-term and long-term success.
"Not only is there the pressure of study, but students are also thinking beyond their final year," Dr Natalie Hendry, a lecturer in Education (Health and Student Wellbeing) at Deakin’s School of Education, said.
"Pathways to future education and employment are becoming more complex and young people feel this pressure acutely."
To help students cope with the stress and anxiety caused by exams, there are a number of tips readily available – especially when it comes to effectively retaining lessons learned while studying.
However, Dr Hendry has a controversial suggestion: let students use social media.
While using phones and even social media for class has been a long-contested issue among educators, but Dr Hendry said that “it can also provide welcome relief,” and even provide enough motivation to last through the exam period.
"By sharing a study music playlist with friends or setting aside a time to game online and chat with other gamers, students are connecting with each other and giving themselves a mental break from study,” Dr Hendry said.
“Sharing and scrolling through favourite memes and videos can also provide a fun way to relax."
But Dr Hendry also acknowledged that not all students have the same coping mechanism.
"Students respond to stress in different ways. Some thrive on having set goals, an end date and a clear idea of how to revise. Others prefer to demonstrate their learning through more creativity and less structure,” she said.
"Anxious students often have high expectations of themselves and this pressure can become so overwhelming that they just stop and can't move forward, even if they have been productive students throughout the year.”
For students who are more prone to anxiety, Dr Hendry suggested that they should set out small prioritised goals, compartmentalising their reviewing process.
It also doesn’t hurt to reach out to a close family member or an older friend, especially if the student is struggling with mental health issues.
"But when things feel especially overwhelming, it is important that parents, carers and teachers encourage young people to visit a GP, school wellbeing co-ordinator, counsellor or a mental health service," Dr Hendry said.
But schools shouldn’t forget their part in ensuring the wellbeing of their students.
In a previous article, Associate Professor Josephine Anderson, who serves as the Clinical Director at Black Dog Institute, said principals should build mental health literacy as well as encourage school staff to get students help the moment that they show signs of mental health issues.
Making sure that the school has an optimum environment for learning and wellbeing – from making use of nature to fostering connection with students – is also crucial, according to a research conducted by Living Faith Lutheran Primary School principal Jane Mueller.
Mueller pointed to studies that have shown that hospital patients with bedside windows overlooking natural vegetation require less pain medication and heal quicker.
“A lack of green space can affect cognitive development and increase the risk of mood disorders,” she said, adding that if school grounds don’t lend themselves to gardens, they can get creative with a BYOP (bring your own plant) initiative in the classroom.
“Not only will the natural colours and smells bring a sense of calm and assuredness, the plants will produce increased oxygen in the learning space.”