Today's teen angst goes beyond pimples, prom

November 09, 2003|By Nicholas Leonhardt

"A CRUST eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety," the philosopher Aesop declared in 550 B.C. But in the 21st century, Americans gorge themselves on stress, so much so that they are stressing out over how to reduce stress.

The fretful folks in Denver voted last week on a program to reduce tension by playing Indian music and primordial sounds in public places while serving tranquillity-inducing foods in school cafeterias. (It failed.)

American workers agonize, ironically, over relaxation by worrying that their 40-plus-hour work weeks and two-week vacations do not produce the mellowness Europeans gain from their six weeks off.

Magazines and books offer quizzes to rate a reader's stress level, while the Journal of Psychosomatic Research provides numerical ratings for life's common experiences, both pleasant and upsetting. For example, remodeling a house nets 20 points, and attending parties more frequently is worth 15. If the total reaches 250 points in a year, one is officially overstressed, a condition the Journal compares to a nuclear meltdown.

Yet those most harmed by the national preoccupation with anxiety are teen-agers, a population already struggling with insecurities and hormones.

One in three teen girls and one in four boys report chronic high stress, according to Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Teen angst is more than something to whine about in the cafeteria. The study says that highly stressed teens have double the chances of addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco as their less uptight peers. In addition, stress contributes to teen suicides, eating disorders, physical ailments and depression.

Adults working two jobs and struggling single parents may snort at the concept of teen stress as little more than worries about pimples on prom night. But the demands on high school students are constantly rising as parents and teachers expect teens to earn top grades and play top sports so they can get into the top colleges.

In the past, high school students took high school courses. Then honors classes begat "gifted and talented" programs, which begat the Advanced Placement courses. In AP classes, students as young as 15 struggle through college-level work without the compensating benefits of frat parties and dorm life. Students in varsity sports find their victories matter as much, if not more, to coaches, parents, school alumni and college scouts as they do to the athletes themselves.

Perhaps the greatest cause of teens' trepidation is the daunting SAT test for college admission.

During the first semester of high school, years before most teens take the test, they receive mailings from a multitude of SAT preparation programs. This starts a chain reaction. Colleges and financial aid services nationwide send letters and brochures until the average high school sophomore receives more mail than a small business.

Courting college-bound students is a business that capitalizes on the pressures of college admission. Sorting through the mailings, teens worry they won't score well on the college board and sign up for SAT classes long before they have even registered for the test - a practice akin to taking penicillin just in case strep germs attack your throat.

Colleges bombard students with glossy brochures, all of which feature diverse faces serenely grinning from verdant campuses. The colleges urge teens to visit immediately and follow up with e-mail reminders of just exactly how many days are left until the application deadline.

Stress multiplies when financial aid counseling services announce they have reserved seats for a teen and a parent at their next meeting, although the teen never asked to attend. But these companies warn that even if students get into their first choice, the high cost of tuition may make attendance impossible. For a fee, these companies promise to point out the financial pitfalls and lead tense teens down the path to lucrative scholarships.

Dire letters follow from companies warning students to select the right credit card for emergencies, the best dorm insurance for calamities and the cheapest car insurance for campus collisions. For teens who don't see a campus in their future, the armed services add their brochures to the daily mail call. In addition to the facts about recruitment, "The Few, The Proud, The Marines" offer an official medallion to teens who ask for more information. The Navy, savvy on teen habits, includes a free 30-minute phone card just for listening to a recruiter.

Whether a teen decides to "be all that you can be" in the armed forces or to ponder "to be or not to be" on campus, the high school years force tremendous and life-defining decisions. High school students who take these decisions seriously face far more stress than average adults, who already have determined their paths in life.

Nicholas Leonhardt is a junior at Loyola Blakefield High School and lives in Lutherville.

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