• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Exam stress is not a mental illness

The Sunday Times has reported that the University of Cambridge approved requests for 218 students to have alternative exam arrangements last year – triple the amount of students allowed special measures five years ago.

However, recent press reports have tended to misinterpret the nature of this problem. They accept the premise that the demand for differential treatment at exam time is the outcome of a mental-health crisis currently sweeping campuses. They rarely pause and ponder what constitutes a mental-health issue, and whether these claims are serious.

According to a National Union of Students (NUS) survey in 2015, 78 per cent of undergraduates suffered from mental-health issues during the previous year. If this were true, being mentally ill would be the norm on campus. But clearly, it isn’t. Instead, the traditional boundary between health and illness has become corroded due to society’s inclination to interpret the problems of life through the prism of mental health.

This happens to young people at an early age. One of the most disturbing developments in recent times is the pathologisation of children’s behaviour. This is particularly striking in education, where the normal tensions and insecurities of childhood are often discussed in terms of medical diagnoses. The invention of conditions such as ‘schoolphobia’ and ‘test anxiety’ reflects a wider process of medicalisation in the classroom.

Dramatic, headline-grabbing figures regarding an epidemic of exam-related stress in schools accompany claims that children are under unprecedented pressure, due to the proliferation of testing and the burden of schoolwork. In turn, children often voice their concerns about school life through a psychological vocabulary. When I went to primary school, we did not use words like stress, trauma or depression to describe our feelings.

Unfortunately, medicalising children can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When children are treated as potential patients they may well be inclined to accept the role assigned to them. Therefore it’s not surprising that by the time young people arrive at university they experience the challenges they face as mental-health issues. Once exam stress is medicalised this new ‘condition’ can only spread.

Young people today are said to be subject to unprecedented pressures, whether it’s an unreasonable regime of testing in schools or the financial insecurity and poverty of being at university. No doubt, students face pressure. But can anyone seriously claim that previous generations of young people led pressure-free lives? Until the medicalisation of young people is challenged, this so-called mental-health crisis will get worse and worse.

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