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Even though, for more than 20 years, the World Health Organization has recognized the pivotal role schools can play in the mental health and well-being of students (Hendren, Weisen, & Orley, 1994), it is only recently that government agencies and policy makers have issued directives addressing school mental health. The impetus behind the current trend comes from two predominant factors: the recognition that many children and youth are affected by poor mental health and that schools are well positioned to affect positive changes in student mental health.
Purpose: The purpose of this study is to further our understanding of anxiety as experienced by high school students in a school in a mid-sized city in western Canada. Our research was guided by three constituent questions: (a) what school-related anxieties are experienced, (b) how do these anxieties affect the well-being of students, and (c) what strategies and approaches do these students suggest would help mitigate school-related anxieties?
Method: Twenty-four students in a compulsory health and wellness class agreed to participate in this study. Students were in Grades 9 to 11; there were 7 boys and 17 girls. Data were collected through journal entries and focus group interviews. Once a week, for 10 weeks, a prompt was provided by one of the researchers, and students recorded their responses in their journals. These journals were collected at the end of the semester and transcribed verbatim into an electronic format.
All students in the class were invited to attend any, or all, of the three focus group sessions―one was held at the beginning of the semester, one mid-semester, and the final session was held at the end of the semester. These interviews were semi-structured with open-ended guiding questions. To encourage participation in the focus groups we held them over the noon hour and a pizza lunch was provided. Data from the three focus group interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. As with the journal entries, the interview data were qualitatively analysed; initially inductively, and subsequently deductively to support the emergent themes.
Results: The participants, both boys and girls, readily discussed the anxieties they were experiencing at school. Five themes evolved as being predominant in initiating and propagating these anxieties: (1) test and exam anxiety, (2) social situations, (3) class presentations, (4) homework, and (5) pressure from parents. School-related anxiety was pervasive with only one student expressing experiencing no anxiety at school. Acknowledging that stressors could not always be removed, students suggested ways in which teachers could help ameliorate some of the anxiety-provoking stresses.
This study offers insights into the types of anxieties experienced by high school students, how it affects them, how they cope or manage these anxieties, and what they feel would help mitigate the often disabling and sometimes debilitating aspects of school-related anxiety. Importantly, what students describe and suggest fall within the realm of what it means to be a teacher. This is particularly reassuring for teachers with a low self-efficacy regarding their ability to positively affect their students’ mental health.