YEAR 12 students are about to enter the most sleepless time of their schooling life, with adolescent health specialists overwhelmed during the Higher School Certificate period.
Paediatric sleep specialist at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Chris Seton, is overwhelmed by bookings every September, with only a month to go until students start their written exams on October 15.
”Normally that age group makes up about 5 per cent of my patients. This time of year it’s about 50 per cent,” he said.
ReachOut.com, Australia’s leading online youth mental health service, has a similar surge in activity from October to November with up to 4000 people looking at its exam-related content every day.
Kerrie Buhagiar, an adolescent mental health specialist with ReachOut.com, said the HSC was a particularly stressful time for students and their families.
”We find students don’t look after their physical and mental health,” she said. ”There are higher levels of not sleeping well, not eating well and not taking time out.”
Vijaya Manicavasagar, a director of psychological services for the Black Dog Institute, calls it ”September anxiety” and notes that it spreads quickly through the school yard.
”Anxiety is quite contagious,” she said. ”If you are hanging out with a group of anxious kids that level of anxiety can escalate and spread throughout the group.”
However, with most of the 72,000 year 12 students finishing school this week to knuckle down for their exams, help is at hand for parents and siblings who find themselves walking on eggshells.
Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist from the US National Institute of Mental Health in Australia last week to deliver the keynote address on changes in the teenage brain at the Brain Sciences UNSW Symposium, said today’s adolescent ”digital natives” need to learn how to switch off.
”We know that teenagers are great multi-taskers,” he said. ”But they need to set aside some time in the day to not be multi-tasking, through … meditation or yoga, where they can unclutter their minds for at least part of the day.
”Mindfulness is a good technique because there are no side effects. It’s not expensive to implement.”
Another simple strategy is eating a good breakfast, said Jenny O’Dea, a professor of health education and nutrition education at the University of Sydney, who is conducting a study of the eating habits of 10,000 students around Australia.
”We don’t know a lot about the physiology of the brain, really, but we do know that it likes to be properly fed and rested and that it likes to have at least eight to nine hours sleep,” she said.
”It’s essential that that is provided to the brain.”