NAVIGATING life in secondary school today can be overwhelming for students as they commonly experience several hurdles that can impact their studies.
A school counsellor for over 17 years, Nor Hasnah Mohd Yusof from SMK TTDI Jaya, Selangor identified three major challenges: mental health issues, academic pressure and unfavourable school experience.
“The education system focuses on cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence. Unfortunately, academic achievement is still a top priority for many which leads to these challenges to survive their schooling years.”
Stress, she said, was a contributing factor to the rise of mental health issues among students.
“Good mental well-being is important for a student’s personal development and academic performance.
“Students may find it difficult to understand the lessons. Disruptions such as misbehaving classmates can cause more stress and make them lose interest in learning.
“There are also instances of teachers being overly strict and rushing to complete the syllabus before the exams.”
While parents might have well intentions in wanting their children to perform well, she said too much pressure could have a negative effect.
“Some parents want their children to follow in their footsteps but do not take into account their children’s abilities and interests.
“Underperforming students may become depressed for not meeting their parents’ expectations.”
Nor Hasnah added that the challenges were influenced by the students’ life at school and at home.
Student Sarmila Mani Maran, 17, from Methodist Girls’ School Ipoh, Perak, agrees that mental health is a critical issue among students.
“It has become normal for students to be stressed or even depressed.”
SMK TTDI Jaya student Anton Yeoh Zhen Feng, 15 said: “Mental health is an important factor. If students feel pressured, stressed or anxious, their focus on their studies would be much affected.”
Maryam Adifazli, 15 from Sekolah Islam Adni said: “Once I was not very fond of a teacher’s teaching methods. It stressed me out because I could not fully comprehend the lessons.
“I began to worry and it took me some time to adjust,” she said.
Relationships with friends and teachers can also be tricky and troubling.
SMK TTDI Jaya student Owen Yu, 15 said: "We need to know whether our friends are helpful or toxic to our well-being.
“There are also teachers who may be biased towards factors such as race and gender. This can foster negative vibes among the students."
“There can be back-stabbing among students just to attain high positions in school and win over the teachers,” Sarmila added.
The academic environment at school is another challenge, one that can come both from the education system and also from parents’ expectations.
Yeoh said the “constantly-changing exam format” and unusual teaching methods could also be challenging.
“Some teachers are unsure of the latest exam format or have trouble teaching a chapter.
“For example, a teacher once provided us with a different set of model exam question papers and answers. It was stressful for us as I had to learn on my own,” said Yeoh.
Maryam said: “The thought of scoring As has become an obsession for students, teachers and parents.”
As a competitive person, she constantly experiences this pressure.
“While my parents and teachers are very encouraging, my desire to compete and do better than my classmates results in me feeling extreme pressure.
When the going gets tough, Yeoh tries to stay motivated.
“I always tell myself that by scoring good marks in exams, I will have a good career in the future. It’s a form of positive thinking.”
Meanwhile, Owen tries his best to meet his parents’ expectations.
“I try to identify my strengths and weaknesses. I know that my parents just want me to do my best. But from other students’ experiences, the pressure to do well in exams can lead them to perform much worse in classes and exams,” he said.
For Sarmila, she is used to her parents’ high expectations but does not view it as a burden.
“It is not wrong for parents to expect success from their children. I take it as a challenge.”
But, she added that skills were equally important as test scores.
“Parents need to know that even if you score straight As, it does not mean you can handle what life throws at you. Having a good attitude and courage are important.”
Owen said talking about the problems helps students see their situation more clearly.
“If I can’t reach a set academic target, I will tell my parents and we will decide together on what needs to be done. I will also consult my friends and the counsellor at school.
“It’s better for parents to talk to their children about their expectations and for both sides to listen to each other’s opinions.”
Maryam also said that she would turn to her parents when she felt the pressure was getting too much.
Sarmila concurred: “I share everything with my mother. She always gives me solutions.”
Nor Hasnah said school counsellors could also help students through difficult situations.
“The school’s Guidance and Counselling Unit acts as a medium for consultation and understanding of issues.
“However, not many students come forward. Some are reluctant to ask for help out of fear of being bullied further. They would rather turn to social media.
“Therefore, all parties need to cooperate and take steps to address the mental health problems among students. This includes prevention and recovery so that these issues won’t persist.”