Shame Culture Endangers Student Wellness

Joelle Nelson, Co-Editor in Chief

There’s no doubt that Campolindo is highly successful school. Worryingly, however, the number of students seeking relief from the pressure of high achievement seems to be rising in an environment mental health intervention specialist John Barakos has labeled a “shame culture.”

Student anxiety is on the rise, according to Barakos, in part, because the “microculture” of Campolindo is being affected by the “macroculture” of the United States. “This year we are definitely seeing a lot more kids, probably more than I have in the last 5 years,” he said of the increase in students seeking crisis counseling.

Depression, anxiety, and stress are what Barakos sees as the most prevalent symptoms. External pressure combined with school competition accounts for most of the visits to Barakos’ office.

In March, Barakos gave a presentation to faculty about what he believes to be a serious problem among the student body. “Unfortunately, we’re not doing a lot about it,” he said.

According to Barakos, “shame culture,” as opposed to a “guilt culture,” as defined by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, is the difference between feeling bad based on how one’s community reacts versus feeling bad for doing something one’s conscience knows is wrong.

Barakos believes the emphasis placed on achieving a perfect grade point average and getting into a top ranked university in the community and on campus  is responsible for the shame felt by many Campolindo students.

There is a  conflict between what a person is expected to be and who they actually are. “I encourage students to try as their dreams tell them. If your dream is to have a 4.0 and go to a UC, that’s wonderful, let’s work on that. If you’re struggling because you think you are that person and you’re not, then come see us and figure out how to negotiate how you’re going to get your goals met,” Barakos said.

In other words, an intensive, academic, 4-year college path may not be for everyone, but the expectation on campus appears to be that if you are not striving for it, then you are doing something wrong.  Shame culture constantly draws attention to what the student perceives as negative outcomes in relation to these narrowly defined standards.

In extreme cases, such a culture can even convince hard-working students that they are not deserving of the success they do achieve. Barakos once worked with a student who had “imposter syndrome,” which meant he believed he didn’t actually graduate college based on his own merit.

For students with skill sets or interests in subjects and career paths other than those traditionally pursued through the 4-year college track, Campolindo’s campus climate is particularly daunting.  Barakos suggested that vocational education courses are often where these students find sanctuary and develop self confidence.  Barakos said auto shop helped keep him motivated to attend school. “I really struggled in high school, and I went to Acalanes, very high achieving even back then in the 80’s,” he said.

Every morning, the auto shop teacher would ask Barakos and his classmates how they were doing, if they had breakfast.  Barakos said, “it was the only time I felt like I could really learn the way I wanted to.”

According to the Acalanes District website, Campolindo currently offers 13 technical education courses, ranging from Automotive Technology to Music Theory. But these courses appear to be increasingly in danger.  Wood Technology has an uncertain future, with teacher Barry Weiss having recently received a “pink slip”- a formal notice that the district will not be hiring him back next year.

Weiss said working in a shop class “gives kids a chance to practice project-based learning using their minds and their hands at the same time. And yes, it is a stress reliever because in this classroom you’re moving around, you’re thinking, you’re working, no just sitting at a desk.”

Wood tech student sophomore Camryn Sullivan also believes that courses like Wood Tech offer students an important respite from the stress associated with Campolindo’s high academic focus. He said, “I think that there a lot of benefits that you can get and skills you can learn from it.”

Weiss compared the benefits of wood shop to the benefits students find in physical movement during PE. Both courses allow students to take a break from the intense academic rigor provided by their other classes.  Yet, this year PE has been made optional for sophomores who participate in after school sports.  This option may actually be adding to student stress rather than reducing it, as students use the flexibility it offers to load their schedule with even more academic courses.

“I think it’s really important that students have a variety of classes, whether its CTE, art, or P.E,” said Weiss.

Luckily, said Barakos, the counseling department provides many resources to students in need. Proposals for an intervention period during Academy have been discussed and a new Wellness center has been approved. “Campolindo I think has always been very astute, we’ve always had mental health facilities on campus,” he said.

The issue has raised a provocative question: “We want a high achieving school, but that comes with pressure on the student. And we want to relieve the pressure on the student, but… do we want to drop our academic achievement level?” said Barakos, “We’re always going to be stuck.”