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Toronto school study paints a picture of teens under pressure

Keenan MacNeal presents his argument to his teammates Lyle Dobbin, Veenu Goswami, Andrew Morrison Sophie Bird and Sarah Levy during a Team Canada high school debate team practice at the University of Toronto on February 4, 2010.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Teenagers are under so much pressure that they're losing sleep, being driven to tears and experiencing greater levels of emotional distress than many parents and teachers expected, one of the country's largest-ever school-based surveys has found.

Three out of four high-school students said they're worried about the future, more than half said they lose sleep worrying and nearly one in three said they feel like crying, in a questionnaire completed by nearly 103,000 students.

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 "We find [the numbers] ground-breaking, but at the same time there are a lot of wake-up calls for us," said Maria Yau, a research co-ordinator who helped the Toronto District School Board conduct a census of nearly all of its Grade 7 to Grade 12 students.

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Figures of this kind and scale are rare. The results on emotional health are entirely new, as they were included in the board's student census for the first time.

"Many of us believe that children and youth have this happy-go-lucky existence, but clearly we're hearing something very different," said Dave Johnston, the school board's senior manager of support services.

Although teenagers today may face fewer demands than those who grew up during a depression or a war, they're dealing with a high level of uncertainty, according to Toni Atkinson, a clinical psychologist who works at several clinics in the Toronto area. The constant connectivity that social media and cellphones provide means teens are wiser, and also less naive than ever before, Dr. Atkinson said. This is a double-edged sword for an age group facing competitive university admissions, rising tuition costs and an uncertain job market.

"Today it's become, right from Grade 7 and 8, students are worried about their grades and being competitive," she said. "I see kids that are confused, overwhelmed, not able to experience things in a natural way because they have to move faster, they have to do more."

The TDSB recently conducted an analysis of all the mental-health supports in its schools. It will be using the census data to identify gaps in services and develop a board-wide strategy to improve students' emotional well-being.

Board staff believe the numbers reflect the lives of students living in Canadian urban centres.

They certainly reflect trends Michelle McAuliffe has observed in close to 20 years as a school counsellor in Saskatoon. She sees teenagers who are feeling less certain about their future and less comfortable talking about life after high school.

"I had a student last year lose his patience and shout at me, 'Stop talking about this, you guys are pressuring me,'" she said.

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Just 41 per cent of the high-school students surveyed said they felt comfortable discussing problems with their teachers, and 73 per cent said they were worried about their future.

Teens feel pressure to participate in as many after-school activities as possible and struggle to relax when they are constantly plugged into social media sites like Facebook, according to Hans Van Ginhoven, principal at Strathcona High School in Edmonton.

"Our students are busier than they used to be," he said. Mr. Van Ginhoven, who has been an administrator for 20 years, said research shows that being busy can be good for academic achievement, but "there's a tipping point."

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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