Exam pressure can lead to mental illness if neglected, experts warn UAE pupils

Eating disorders, self-harm and even suicidal tendencies are some of the results of stress for pupils.

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ABU DHABI // Overwhelming pressure on stressed pupils to do well at exams is putting their mental health at risk.

Eating disorders, self-harm and even suicidal tendencies are some of the consequences as pupils struggle to cope with the “enormous pressures” to succeed, specialists say.

“Students experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, fear, hopelessness and rage than ever before and exam time can be painful for so many,” said Dr Deema Sihweil, clinical psychologist and director of the Carbone Clinic in Dubai.

Expatriate pupils are particularly affected in the competitive environment of international schools, where many feel that exams will determine their path in life and failure is not an option.

“Along with cultural challenges, transition difficulties, assimilating to new school environments, social pressures and simply pressures of being adolescent are difficult enough.

“The added pressure of succeeding at exams could be understood as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Most students in this area are inclined to pursue a university education,” she said, and teenagers these days are expected to spend up to five hours a day studying.

Aside from psychological troubles, pressure can lead to burn-out and backfire on the pupil who can then give up and lose interest, she said.

Dr Sihweil said that during her seven years practising in the UAE it had become common to see pupils experience extreme stress related to intense academic pressure. “So much so that it can drive teenagers to engage in self-destructive behaviour, such as cutting, substance use, eating disorders and even suicidal tendencies.”

In 2010 and 2011, YoungMinds, a children’s mental health group, received 6,332 calls to its helpline.

Of these, 884 were from young people aged 16 and 17, and 39 per cent were about school problems including exam stress.

Another study carried out by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that academic worries were the biggest cause of stress for about 50 per cent of children.

“Exam pressure as with any type of stress can lead to mental illness if left unmanaged,” said Clare Smart, a mental health consultant at LifeWorks Personal Development Training Centre in Dubai.

“Pupils may withdraw from social and sports activities which are actually vital in managing stress levels. In the worst cases, there have been rare incidents of young people committing suicide when under extreme stress with exams.”

During the time of year when exams, such as A Levels and GCSEs, begin in earnest, Ms Smart notices a rise in teenagers seeking her help.

Some countries place a tremendous importance on exams, such as South Korea and India, where education is economic destiny and student suicides are not uncommon during exam time. While those are extreme cases, Ms Smart pointed out that in a country predominately made up of expatriates who have academic backgrounds, many children in the UAE feel pressured to pursue a university education and follow in their parent’s footsteps.

She said school counsellors could provide help for pupils experiencing exam stress but in more severe cases professional counselling or psychological therapy was the best option. Study coaches could also help.

Mock exams are taking place across the country ahead of finals in April and May and doctors have urged parents to look out for warning signs.

These include declining academic marks, social isolation, sleep or appetite disturbances, emotional outbursts and any substance use or self-harm.

Dr Sihweil said primary prevention programmes in schools and parent workshops to heighten awareness about teenage anxiety would lessen the problem.

“Most of the families wait too long to seek support and assistance and often it is a long road ahead for many youngsters.

“I typically end up seeing teenagers for a year or more because they have reached their thresholds of stress.

“Teachers and parents need to talk about social and emotional issues – how to cope with stress, that failure or imperfect performance is normal, natural and healthy and a part of the learning process.”