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Stoic worshippers at the cult of diligence

There is a link between selective schools and mental health, but it's more complex than you think

illustration of three students weighed down by studying Artwork by Shrawani Bhattarai

Selective high schools are publicly funded schools run by the Department of Education that select students based on academic merit. As a result, they achieve results superior to well-funded private schools, but do so with the same level of funding that government schools receive. From this perspective, they exist in an educational limbo – much more privileged than public schools, but at the same time bound by the same limitations and shortages.

They have come under scrutiny, among other things, for supposedly being breeding grounds of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately debates about mental health at selective schools have often been weaponised by people who have little regard for student wellbeing, but seek instead to utilise vague generalisations and assumptions about mental health at selective schools to attack the system and the students behind it as a whole. There needs to be caution against generalising about selective schools: the students, parents and staff who form its communities, and the policies, research and debates that have shaped selective school experiences.

But while the public discourse on selective schools in regards to mental health has been buried under sensationalism and misunderstanding, it is equally important to acknowledge that selective schools can and do exacerbate mental health problems, and that they deal with unique psychological pressures that are not as common in other education environments. However, in the same way that the mental health needs of all public schools are not being met, selective schools are not adequately supported to deal with the unique challenges they are faced with.

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Commentary on selective schools often references and criticises their high concentration of students with Asian heritage: ‘hyper-racialised’, ‘ethnic imbalance’. It is true that, according to My Schools data, a high proportion of selective school students are from language backgrounds other than English: over 90% of students are from such backgrounds in at least half of the top ten selective schools. This unique cultural makeup is accompanied with a set of cultural values that can negatively impact on mental health.

For example, often heard from selective school students are stories of how people tied up their self worth with their results.

‘You know your results reflect on your parents, sometimes you don’t even know know what the parents do but you know what their kids are doing at uni, how well they are doing.’ Stephanie*, a former selective school student, tells Honi.

She emphasised that although she received neither punishment nor academic pressure from her parents, there was an awareness that her conduct and achievements reflected on her family. Mental health problems in Asian background students are often tied with familial interactions. Many students reported feeling guilt and shame at their own mental health problems when juxtaposed with the hardships endured by their parents.

“When I saw my parents working so hard and going through so much daily humiliation just for me, it just felt like I had no right to feel the way I did,” says James*, a graduate from a top selective school. Almost as a way to repay the sacrifices his parents had made for him, James recalls that he only felt worthy of his parents if he exerted himself towards his studies the same way his parents exerted themselves at work.

“We show our gratitude and appreciation towards one another through our hard work,” he said, before reflecting “But maybe using actual words would be better sometimes.”

The silent stoicism emphasised in East Asian culture is also reflected in how students respond to emotional difficulties — many do not believe they can have meaningful conversations about mental health with their parents, nor do they see any worth in bringing up their personal struggles with their friends. This is compounded with the well documented stigma in Asian societies regarding mental health, which often blames mental health problems on those suffering from it, dismisses them as a passing sadness, or views it as a shameful defect in character. These stigmas still burden second generation Asian immigrants, who can find it extremely difficult to find support due to a feeling of double isolation — one from their families, and one from wider society.

But as competitive as these schools can be, students are also deeply collaborative and supportive. However there is only so much one student can do for another, with their own personal difficulties, assessments, and commitments to take care of.

Emily* talked about how she delayed dealing with her issues with anxiety until after her HSC exams had finished because she feared thinking about them too much before they would negatively impact her marks. However, while this approach worked for her, she now admits that she wishes she was more open with herself about her anxiety.

“I convinced myself that at the end of the day, my marks were more important than anything else. It really wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle and looking back, it’s a miracle I didn’t burn out half way.”

The negative outcomes that can be brought about by these cultural factors are given an environment to fester within the confines of the selective school. While many selective school students feel a sense of gratitude to the intense competitive nature of their high schools and attribute it to their successes, at the same time, the damaging consequences which can result from this high pressure environment cannot be brushed aside.

There exists at selective schools a “cult of diligence”, where hard work is idolised as necessary self-sacrifice, and the ability to power through personal unhappiness exalted as a virtue. Success is viewed as an inevitable result of hard work, so any absence of success can be attributed to a lack of hard work, and as such, a personal failing. Such an atmosphere can breed extremely warped understandings regarding mental health.

Emily* recalls a student in her year 12 maths class who would sleep in class because he would stay up all night studying.

“At the time, we all looked up to him as an example we should all follow. None of us thought it was messed up that this guy felt like he needed to sleep less than four hours a day to succeed. Instead, we would praise him for his dedication, and say that we wanted to be more like him.”

As a result of all this, it is not unusual for students to face persistent issues surrounding self-worth and motivation on their own instead of seeking help, only to disclose it to friends in passing, years after high school.

While it is easy from the outside to blame these mental health problems solely on factors exclusive to Asian culture and the selective school system, as many in the media often do, this critique ignores the wider systemic problems plaguing public education, which selective schools ultimately are a part of. Like any public school, selective high schools are experiencing a shortage of school counsellors. Top performing schools like Hornsby Girls and North Sydney Boys do not even have one full time counsellor according to their latest annual report, having only 0.6 and 0.8 respectively. Most other selective schools only have one. As a result, many selective schools are unable to provide for the mental health needs of their students on a five day a week basis.

“I’m lucky I had my mental breakdown on a Tuesday. If it had happened a day later there wouldn’t have been a school counselor there, and I would have lost the willpower to seek help,” James* tells us, referring to a burnout he experienced in year 10 due to the intense academic pressure around him.

But even when students manage to see a school counselor, the advice they receive is often not culturally sensitive.

“The counsellor kept telling me I needed to bring my parents to see him. But I kept telling him that I felt that it was a bad idea. They would see it as a betrayal,” James said, adding that “It made me so anxious thinking that they might call up my parents without telling me.”

“Some teachers are great, but others are just awful. One teacher would peddle our anxieties by telling us that we couldn’t trust anyone at the school, not even our friends, because our tiger parents had apparently told us all to backstab everyone else.”

Studies show that psychological stress experienced by people from Asian backgrounds is more likely to manifest as somatic problems (such as dizziness, lack of appetite and physical pain) as opposed to more traditional and visible symptoms like panic attacks. It is hypothesised that this is due to the unacceptability of the latter in Asian cultures. A nuanced understanding of how culture intersects with psychology seems to be unfortunately lacking at many selective schools, from both counselors and teachers.

It is then disingenuous to attack selective schools for how they perpetuate mental health problems while ignoring that they, like all public schools, have extremely limited resources to deal with them effectively. While the Berejiklian government has $88 million to ensure two mental health workers for every public school, whether this is a genuine commitment or an empty election promise remains to be seen. For some, however, the change has come too late.

“In year 12, some people just disappeared and we never saw or heard about them ever again. Others would still sometimes rock up to school, but you could tell that they had given up,” James* said.

“While I ultimately enjoyed going to a selective school and feel like I’ve benefited a lot from it, I wish everyone could have had that experience.”

*Names have been anonymised.