It seems as if the whole world has been subjected to a massive experiment in stress management. After over two years of doing battle with COVID, the strains can be seen in schools throughout the world.
Young people seem to be particularly vulnerable to the psychological impacts that are associated with COVID. Prior to COVID, we had evidence that more than one-third of Canadian youth faced mental health challenges, reporting moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety. Since COVID, studies have documented heightened levels of both anxiety and depression among youth; a difficult time of life for many young people has been made even worse.
Young people may be struggling with a loss of connection to friends and the outside world in general. The constant pivoting from one form of instruction to another has increased uncertainty and decreased their sense of control, and many are feeling diminished levels of hope. They are stressed.
How humans react to prolonged stress
Hans Selye, a former McGill University professor, was known for his description of how people react when subjected to prolonged exposure to stressors. His model, the “General Adaptation Syndrome,” is useful for understanding the collective response of young people to COVID.
When people first encounter a stressor, they have an “alarm” reaction, which is the same physiological response as the “fight or flight” response: pulse rates increase and adrenaline shoots through the body to provide the energy needed to either do battle with the danger or to try to escape from it.
If the source of stress persists, we move into a resistance phase and our bodies maintain a heightened vigilance to do battle. We are constantly scanning the environment, looking for evidence of a threat. And, while it can often feel like we are coping quite well, we are most likely to experience heightened levels of annoyance, frustration or irritability.
Maintaining these heightened levels of hyper-awareness takes a lot of energy (has anyone felt more tired than usual lately?). If the threat persists, we eventually use up our emotional and psychic energy, and some of us can fall into a state of exhaustion. Selye called this “running out of adaptation energy” – we just don’t have the resources to cope any more. I call it “running out of GAS.”
As useful a metaphor as this might be, the GAS model has also been criticized for over-emphasizing the physical response to stress and underappreciating the importance of psychological resources. We know that attitudes, beliefs and dispositions can be powerful antidotes to stress, and that we can use thinking processes (e.g., reframing, developing new insights, positive planning and preparation, etc.) to reduce the perception of stress and create a better sense of well-being. In other words, psychological resources can potentially mediate the effects of prolonged exposure to stressors.
There is more good news: we have a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that effective career development strategies help young people to develop the psychological resources commonly associated with well-being. Now, I have to be careful here: I am not talking about the misguided practices still found in many schools that encourage (or expect) young people to be identifying occupational choices in Grade 9 or 10. Those practices tend to reduce students’ sense of well-being – they heighten student anxiety (I should know what I want to do; what’s wrong with me that I don’t?) and serve to disengage young people from the business of actively constructing a preferred future because, by and large, many students do not see the relevance in such activities.
“We know that attitudes, beliefs and dispositions can be powerful antidotes to stress …”
Rather, I am referring to those practices that help to identify and harness a sense of purpose within the real-world contexts in which young people find themselves:
- The process of engagement, which is a quest for relevance, leads to hope.
- The process of exploration, which is a quest for opportunity, leads to a recognition of viable options (a possibility mindset).
- The process of deciding (especially when it is deciding on the next step, not the last step), which is a quest for clarity, leads to a sense of direction.
- The process of preparation, which is a quest for competence, leads to higher levels of self-efficacy.
- The process of implementation, which is a quest for action, leads to increased confidence in self and in the contextual situation one lives in.
All of these outcomes of good career development practice – hope, connection, direction, self-efficacy and confidence – are also determinants of mental health; young people who have these outcomes tend to have a more positive sense of personal well-being.
A number of years ago, my colleague Kerry Bernes and I conducted the Career Needs Survey of thousands of students in Grades 7 to 12. One of the stronger findings was that young people naturally turn to their teachers for career support and advice. Whether teachers recognize it or not, they are powerful career influencers. Unfortunately, most educators do not appreciate the career development impact they have, and positive outcomes tend to be achieved accidentally rather than intentionally. The challenge is to help educators recognize their roles as career influencers, and to better prepare them to fill this role.
As a career development community, let’s take up this challenge: Let’s become allies in supporting teachers as career influencers. Let’s adequately prepare our amazing educators to help them to be intentional career and mental health influencers. Let’s introduce modern and effective career principles into both pre-service teacher education and to in-service professional development activities. Let’s press for a course on “what every K-12 teacher needs to know to support the well-being of youth through career development.” Let’s shake things up a little, shall we?