Surekha describes how an education overload is taking its toll on pupils – and nobody seems to hear their anguish.
Fidgety hands, shaky fingers, pale face, cold droplets of sweat forming on the back of their necks. Many students go through this everyday.
In one study in two elite high schools in the East Coast of the United States, 49% of students said they felt a “great deal of stress” daily.
Are Malaysian students better off? Many pupils suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses due to the system and the fear of disappointing their parents.
At the tender age of seven, children are enrolled and experience high levels of stress while being expected to cope and understand. The homework overload doesn’t help.
Looking back, I was often afraid of being punished for being late for school. Being late – even by one minute – would have meant having to stand in front of the entire assembly – a huge embarrassment.
There are not enough hours in a day for the average student. On average, a person can only focus for an hour at a stretch; yet, school takes up at least six hours a day. Co-curricular activities last at least an extra hour and a half, sometimes even on Saturdays.
The quality of teachers has changed since my mother was in school. Back then, teachers seemed more dedicated: they knew what they were doing, and it was easier for students to grasp what was taught.
In my secondary school, some teachers can’t be bothered if you are sleeping or whether you understand what they teach. All they care about is whether we complete our assignments, even if it means copying them from someone else. Sadly, teachers think giving homework is equivalent to teaching.
There are exceptions. Some teachers try to impart their knowledge effectively but they are probably a minority.
So, for many pupils, tuition is a must. This can only mean that teachers have not played their part in teaching them effectively. Tuition classes don’t come cheap: parents have to fork out between RM60 and RM680 monthly.
As soon as school is dismissed, students rush home in hopes of getting an hour’s sleep. After that, it is a series of tuition classes or stacks of assignments. Most tuition classes take two hours each and could end as late as 10pm, leaving children exhausted.
After tuition, it is more homework or reports for clubs and other co-curricular activities. Most of my classmates end up sleeping at 2-3am, making them too tired the next day.
Tired and pressured
The routine not only tires us physically but also mentally. Some of us get emotional, grumpy or plain moody. I envy my parents for having had the luxury of time when they were my age, as education seemed less taxing then.
Being in the science stream and taking on two extra subjects (by choice) makes it harder for me to cope. Given enough time and the right guidance, I am confident I will succeed as I am passionate about the subjects I am taking.
But the cramming, the many subjects and the need for tuition adds to a vicious cycle – and a few students may decide to end it all. A life could be lost, all because no one stepped up to change anything.
But, for some parents, family pride seems more important than a silent cry for help from their own children. Being able to boast about their children’s academic success, even over social media, seems more important to them than understanding the pressure their children face. So these parents choose to be oblivious to what their children are going through.
Just because they get their children everything they want doesn’t mean the parents are there for them. Parents need to recognise that sometimes their children may just need a day off, when they are already at the edge, so close to falling. A day off to do anything they want: sleep, go to the mall, indulge in a movie marathon, anything.
Silent mental illness
Most parents think that if their children do not go to school, they have to stay at home and study. But sometimes, children just can’t. An article in Psychology Today observed that “the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s”.
How alarming it is that this has not received much attention. The mental health of teenagers continues to worsen and people still remain clueless, by choice.
Any wonder then that last year, 29% of Malaysians were bold enough to admit they were mentally ill.
The saddest part about this admission is what comes after that. Parents may laugh it off; teachers may stare; peers may poke fun at them while trying to disguise their own problems.
After being forced to go to school, with its strenuous accompanying routine, many children are expected to be the cream of the crop.
If they don’t achieve this, they are subjected to severe pressure if not punishment and criticism. Some parents do more than verbally abuse their children with harsh words; they physically abuse them for not meeting their expectations when it comes to grades.
Sometimes, parents don’t understand nor appreciate how their children may have done everything possible to try and make their parents proud.
What society doesn’t understand is that we are still children, and we don’t have enough experience to deal with criticism. Sometimes words cut deeper than knives. We don’t need the extra criticism; we are our own worst critics.
When a parent compares us to someone else, thoughts run through our minds: Why can’t I be more like that? Why can’t they see I’m trying? Why can’t they see that all I need is for them to understand and not say hurtful things? Am I really that dumb? I’m not the child they thought they raised. I let them down. I’ll never be good enough.
Teenagers tend to over-think more often than not, and that destroys them. “I’m going insane but that’s okay because my grades are more important than my mental health anyway” – this quote I once spotted spoke volumes and made me realise that it is not just a few people going through this; it is millions.
The competitive nature of students pushes many of them to want to do better than their peers. When they don’t, they disappoint themselves. Parents and teachers get upset or disappointed, adding to the children’s sense of not being good enough or accepted. In search of an outlet, some children resort to drugs, smoking, self harm, even suicide.
Luckily for me, my parents believe that failure is a part of success, and that makes it easier for me to try harder. It actually motivates me to want to impress them.
Teachers need to be more understanding; schools need to change the way they treat and mould their students; and parents need to be more accepting. They all need to realise that students are not going to get better if nothing changes.
Society too has to change to help stressed overworked teenagers before they do things everyone will regret.
Surekha, a 16-year-old student, has taken the first step in her dream of becoming a journalist. She recently participated in an Aliran writers’ workshop “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”, where she wrote this piece.