THE pressure and angst that has grown around the VCE is a real problem for young people’s mental health these days, and is concerning to all psychologists and counsellors who work with this age group. We are seeing health suffer, families getting very stressed, and there is a suicide risk associated with high expectations. The pressure to achieve can be counterproductive, students do worse than they would if they had been able to enjoy more relaxation and family time during their VCE year. Mental health issues are now far too common among young people, especially girls, who tend to be more conscientious and self critical. Self-harm, eating disorders, insomnia, and general anxiety can easily afflict those girls who have a perfectionistic tendency. There has been a generational change. Many of us who are adults needed to be made to study more when we were young. Today, though, young people have far more anxiety about their lives. Sometimes the best thing a parent can do is encourage a child to study less, and have proper holidays or breaks.
We need to be more responsible about protecting young people’s mental health. Private schools have an investment in terms of their reputations that is not always in the interests of students. In other schools, teachers attempt to get young people to do their best, by telling them their whole lives depend on this one year.
The truth is, our adult careers are not highly correlated to exam scores at all. Personal factors like emotional intelligence, loyalty, friendliness and empathy have a far greater influence on career success. And getting into a course of your choice can be achieved in other ways, through mature entry or starting another course first. It takes most young people several years at university to find their true career path. There is a high rate of burnout among those who are trying to progress in a course that isn’t really their own choice, but simply what others want of them. VCE scores matter, but nowhere near as much as young people are made to believe. A middle road — being conscientious, but realising that being young is about trying out different paths, not being gridlocked on a career conveyor belt — is the healthy way that leads to the happiest life.
— Professor Steve Biddulph is a psychologist and the author of Raising Boys and The New Manhood, but is now researching the mental health crisis affecting girls.