Overburdened, Overwhelmed

By Lawrence Hardy

In the elementary and middle schools of Rockingham County, N.C., a rural district north of Greensboro, administrators have to discard as many as 20 test booklets on exam days because children vomit on them.

"Kids [are] throwing up in the middle of the tests," says Dianne Campbell, the district's director of testing and accountability. "They cry. They have to be removed. The stress is so much on the test that they can't handle it."

It's not just tests that are stressing students. Across the country, school nurses, psychologists, counselors, and others concerned about children's mental health say that schools in general have become more stressful places and that many students can't handle the pressure.

What are we doing to our children? Why are we making them sick? What is it about our families, our communities, and particularly our schools that has made their lives so stressful? And what can we do to help?

While there are few studies on stress among K-12 students, two recent surveys show a disturbing trend at the college level. In one of the studies, released in February by the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, the counseling center at Kansas State University found that the percentage of students being treated for depression at the center had doubled between 1989 and 2001. The study, once of the most extensive of its kind, followed a 2001 national survey in which more than 80 percent of college counselors said they believed the number of students seeking help for serious psychological problems had increased over the past five years.

And the trend appears to be starting before college. At the K-12 level, school health experts say they are seeing more student stress, much of it coming from outside school. High divorce rates, a sluggish economy, and the rapid pace of society have all put unprecedented pressure on families -- and on kids.

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