Calgary at a Crossroads

Two Calgary high schools have hired psychologists to help their students manage the combined pressures of high-stakes exams, post-secondary applications, part-time jobs and home life. 

Arvin Rajan and Martin Poirier, principals of Sir Winston Churchill High School and Western Canada High School, respectively, have each hired a psychologist to work 2.5 days per week. 

"You can feel the level of anxiety in your schools," said Poirier.

The initiative is funded by each principal's individual school resource allocation and is part of a five-pronged proactive strategy developed in response to Alberta Education and CBE surveys that show climbing stress and anxiety levels among teens. 

Parental and personal pressures

For Rajan, it's not uncommon for him to have students come to his office and break down in tears after what they perceive to be a poor performance on an exam. 

"We're talking about kids who are getting 84, 85 per cent, but that's not good enough. They're saying that they need 88, 89, 90 per cent to get into university," he said.

"I see gifted athletes and musicians who give up their passions and talents to focus on their marks. It's getting worse," he said. 

It's not all academic pressure either, said Rajan.

"We have parents that expect their kids to all go into engineering or medical school, and maybe they don't want to do that. Maybe that's not their passion," he said.

"That happens quite a bit, actually."

That's why the psychologists will also work in tandem with faculty and parents to build the capacity to identify and address these stressors before they become problematic, he said.

Economic downturn weighing heavy

Both principals have noticed how the provincial economic downturn is taking a toll on kids' mental health. 

"The challenge that we have now, with an economic crisis in our city, there's extra pressure that's coming up," said Poirier.

"There's that extra pressure of getting that scholarship to get into university."

Rajan said he has received numerous phone calls from parents who say they simply can't afford graduation fees. 

"We do everything we can to help ... these kids who earn the right to cross the stage and who want to celebrate with their peers."

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.