Stress facing Hong Kong teachers and students is a collective problem we cannot ignore

  • Anson Au says though stress is often dismissed as an individual problem, studies on its characteristics show it is a huge public health danger. Stress builds up silently, induces destructive emotions and behaviour, and can even change genes
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 8:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 10:37am

The stress that Hong Kong educators and students face as a result of a dysfunctional education system received much attention as 2018 came to a close. Teachers are reportedly struggling to cope; in a recent survey, 52.2 per cent were found to show some symptoms of depression. Suicide rates among students have also risen over the years.

Some efforts have been made to help alleviate these problems. For example, Chinese University has a student-run “Tree Hole” campaign where students are allowed to anonymously voice their grievances without reproach.

Stress among the most vulnerable in our society has not received sufficient attention from government authorities as it is largely seen as an individual problem of coping, a natural part of life that one has to overcome as part of our repertoire of “soft skills”. But multidisciplinary health research, including my own, tells us that rising levels of stress, especially among children, is actually a public health problem because of the four characteristics we’ve discovered about stress.

First, being stressed is and can become genetic. An innovative field called epigenetics has shed light on the “nature versus nurture” debate by showing that genetics and health consequences are shaped by both. A prominent article published in Nature, the world’s foremost scientific journal, shows that the health behaviour, practices and consequences we develop (“nurture”) actually become built into our genes.

Some early evidence of this comes from addiction studies dealing with alcohol and tobacco abuse, which showed that addictions were passed down. More recently, scientists are discovering that the stress we experience functions in the same manner. Stress changes our genes to make us more predisposed to being stressed. Just as important, this stress tendency can be passed down to the next generation.

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Second, stress accumulates without our knowing. The conditions that cause stress to pile atop one another in a person’s mind and the roles in which they receive this stress tend to overlap. As a consequence, stress spills over across these roles as we slip between them, carrying our accumulated stress everywhere we go.

We often snort at people breaking down over simple things as signs of weakness. But a woman who breaks down over a pot on the hob boiling over may have got there through a winding journey. She may have been scolded by clients in her job as a nurse, had conflicts with the day care centre looking after her children, whom she cares for at home while dealing with the looming realities of an ill, ageing parent and student debts to be paid off. Her tears were never just about the dinner. Moreover, in a culture like ours where mental health is stigmatised, just having a mental health problem is itself a source of stress.

Third, most crucially, stress is strongly linked to a host of mental and physical health problems. Psychologically, stress percolates into loss of confidence, identity, affection and sense of control. Through this, people may be led to believe they are alone, unwanted or unimportant, and incapable of overcoming difficulties or succeeding. Stress can then manifest as anxiety, anger and depression.

From patterns we can observe at the national level, we know stress can drive behavioural change. Most commonly, this includes escapist behaviour such as alcohol or substance abuse. For example, feelings of a strong sense of powerlessness and low mastery have been found to lead to heavier-drinking habits.

Other patterns may also include delinquency or deviance, when someone who is stressed seeks out social support from participation in deviant subcultures. As Chinese University’s “Tree Hole” campaign shows, students are in need of adequate mental health support, yet aren’t receiving it from the education system.

Fourth, for children in particular, early-life factors have a significant influence on health outcomes in later life. Children who grow up in environments with high stress and without the free, playful activity that allows for creativity end up adopting unhealthy, lifelong practices, like the tendency to get stressed.

They also become more predisposed at an earlier age to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. In addition, their poor emotional, social and brain development makes them vulnerable to these same problems in adulthood. Thus, both directly and indirectly, our mechanistic and stressful education system is casting our children into a circuit of numerous mental health challenges.

Stress is a problem, with more far-reaching consequences than we think. It’s also a symptom of a system in urgent need of change. Our children groan in silence under the weight of our ignorance as we continue to ignore the signs of disaster painted in our education system. They deserve a better quality of life and a better future.

Anson Au is currently a visiting professor in the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Law at Harbin Institute of Technology and a PhD student in sociology at the University of Toronto