Increased Stress Levels Among Middle and High School Students Revealed



Results of the 2016 Emerson Hospital Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the largest public school student survey of its kind in Massachusetts, reveals that stress levels among middle and high school students due to academic stress have increased over the past four years.  

A surprisingly high 30% of sixth graders - the youngest students surveyed - reported feeling high levels of stress due to academic workload, up significantly from 24% two years ago and 26% four years ago. Among eighth graders, 43% reported high levels of stress due to academic workload. This number rose to 62% for high school students.

In addition, the survey shows increases in the number of middle and high school students who have suicidal thoughts, and an increase in the number of teens who text while driving.

Students Report Increased Stress Due to  Academic Workload
When exploring why students are stressed, many point to their schoolwork. Based on the 2016 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, more than three high school respondents in five (62%) report high or very high levels of stress as a result of their academic workload during the previous twelve months. This incidence is much higher among females (73%) than males (52%).

Suicide Ideation On the Rise
There are signs of an increase in suicidal thoughts among students in Emerson’s service area. In 2016, eight percent of grade 8 students reported they had seriously considered suicide, up from 6% in 2014, and down from 10% in 2010 and 2012. Among high school students, 13% reported they had seriously considered suicide in 2016, slightly up from 12% in years 2014, 2012, 2010 and 2008.  A positive trend is that the 2016 Emerson Hospital Youth Risk Behavior Survey suicide ideation rates for high schoolers are two percentage points lower than the state average of 15% in 2015, which is the most recent state statistic available.  

“The risk of suicide is real in our communities. Parents, guardians, teachers, physicians, clergy, coaches – every responsible adult in a child’s life - needs to be aware of suicidal ideation, know what the signs are and offer to help,” said Dr. Rubinstein. “These signs can include talking about wanting to die or kill oneself, looking for a way to end one’s life, talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live, or being a burden to others. Every year there are students who commit suicide in our communities.  Students need to know that help is available and where they can find it.” (Please see sidebar for resources.)

Texting While Driving  –  Critical Public Health Concern
Despite public health and legal efforts to reduce poor driving behaviors, fifty percent of students in grade 12 reported using a cell phone while driving to text/surf the web or access social media within the past 30 days, up significantly from 44% in 2014. Fifty five percent of students in grade 12 reported using a cell phone to talk while driving.

“Too many teens lose their lives to texting and other risky behaviors while driving,” said Dr. Rubinstein. “This behavior often begins at home.  Parents can start by modeling healthy behavior – not using their phones while driving. Doing so helps save not just the driver’s life – but the lives of every passenger, biker and pedestrian in the area.”   

Positive Trends Found
There were some positive data points revealed in the survey. High school students are using alcohol less often and are gambling less.  The percentage of students being offered, sold or given illegal drugs on school property has also decreased.  

“Emerson’s mission is to help every resident in our service area live healthy lives,” said Christine Schuster, President and CEO of Emerson Hospital. “The Youth Risk Behavior Survey results are critical to understanding the behaviors of students in our communities as we work hard to help youth make healthy, lifelong choices.”  Based on the survey results over the nearly 20 years Emerson has conducted the study, school staff and health educators have put new programs in place to improve the outcomes of students in Emerson’s service area. These programs include opioid addiction education and teacher trainings to incorporate mindfulness practices in the classroom to reduce student stress.

The Emerson Hospital Youth Risk Behavior Survey has been conducted bi-annually since 1998. The goal is designed to provide educators with reliable data that can assist in the ongoing development of health education curriculum and programs within Emerson’s community.  This year, 10,787 students in grades 6, 8, and 9 through 12 from eight public school districts in Emerson’s service area participated in the survey, constituting a 91% participation rate. Students from the following towns participated in the 2016 survey: Acton-Boxborough, Concord and Concord-Carlisle, Groton-Dunstable, Harvard, Littleton, Maynard, Nashoba Regional, and Westford Public Schools. The students took the anonymous survey during school in March 2016 and it was administered by professional staff from each district. To access the complete 2016 Emerson Hospital Youth Risk Behavior Survey results, please visit

Westford Schools’ K-12 PE/Health Wellness Coordinator, Sean O’Leary, explains how the survey provides much needed insight and value to the community. “The results from the Emerson Hospital Youth Risk Behavior Survey have been essential to our educators and school community over the years. Based on the data, we create health education programs to address risky behaviors and help our students learn about and embrace healthy choices.”

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Emerson Hospital is a multi-site health system headquartered in Concord, Mass., with additional facilities in Sudbury, Groton and Westford. The 179-bed hospital provides advanced medical services to more than 300,000 individuals in 25 towns.



Resources to Help Students

Suicide Prevention Support:

  • U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 800-273-8255

Substance Abuse Support:

Coping with Stress Support: