Anxiety, ATARs and Soft Options

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Young People Anxiety and ATARs

On Saturday, 14 January, the West Australian reported that the Education Minister had raised concerns that too many high school students were taking “soft options” rather than taking the more challenging Tertiary Admission Ranked courses.

The use of the term “soft option” is an interesting choice of words because the implication behind taking a ‘soft option’ is that the young person doesn’t have the strength, determination, or discipline to tackle the more rigorous ATAR courses.

While that may be a possibility, however, the term ‘soft options’ feeds into the stereotype of young people being lazy, self-centred, and unconcerned.

Perhaps taking a “soft option” is wisdom brought about by too much concern that we as adults are not recognising.

What do I mean by “wisdom brought about by too much concern”.

Anxiety and ATARs

It is well known that young people studying for their ATAR experience stress. However, this knowledge is often only lip service around the time of exams. There are articles that get printed in the couple of weeks before exam time on how parents can support their children during the exam period.

But for many students, the anxiety starts in Year 11.

The long-term impact of stress.

One of the things we know is that the longer a person is under stress, the more likely it is that they will experience long-term consequences. For example, the body’s homeostasis shifts from being in a calm and relaxed state to being constantly in a state of high anxiety, or the person develops anxiety disorders or eating disorders to bring some control back into their life.

Availability of mental health services for young people.

One of the other things we know is the lack of mental health services available to young people. Parents often struggle to access mental health services for their adolescent children, and it is only when the mental health issues have either increased in severity the young person needs to be admitted to a hospital, or they are picked up in the Justice system that treatment becomes available.

The lack of mental health services has been exacerbated by COVID, with statistics repeatedly showing that the long-term impact of COVID on many young people has been an increase in mental health issues.’

A question

As an adult, would you subject yourself to up to eighteen months of anxiety when

  1. There is no guarantee of the outcome you think you want.
  2. You don ‘t have the skills you currently have or use to manage anxiety (i.e., you are still learning to manage anxiety effectively) and
  3. You are aware that if your mental health gets worse, there will not be suitable treatment options available to you?

Given the above, most of us, as adults, would also take the “soft option”.

The temptation is to say, “but it’s different; young people need to prepare for their future”.

The pressure of the future.

Despite knowing that most people will change their careers three or four times throughout their lifetime, we continue the mantra that a young person of 16 or 17 years needs to know what they want to do as adults.

When I left school at 17, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was one of those students who did the equivalent of ATAR though at the time; it was Tertiary Entrance Exams. 

Over the course of my life, I have had seven career changes, and at 64 years, I am very clear about what I don’t want to do and only getting a bit closer to understanding what I really want to do in the last few years of my working life.

I didn’t go to university till I was in my thirties, and while I have two degrees, and I am glad to have them, they have only been tangentially linked to my careers.

So, to young people, I say the following;

  • Don’t lose your peace of mind, worrying or fretting about the future. None of us knows what the future holds.
  • Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do, and when that changes, find something else you enjoy doing.
  • Do what gives you the biggest range of career choices so you don’t end up stuck in a dead end. There are plenty of adults who have chosen a career in their early twenties to end up hating it in their forties and can’t find the courage to change careers.
  • You don’t have to have your life worked out. None of us does. Life is what happens when we are living.

There is wisdom in sometimes taking the ‘soft option’.

 – Written by David Kernohan, Director of Youth Legal Services

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