Written by Thao Pham.
In the chronicles of global education, Taiwan has etched its name with an education system renowned for academic excellence and unwavering standards. However, beneath the surface of this claim lies a pressing concern – the mental health challenges faced by high school students. The Taiwanese education system, marked by intense competition and high expectations, places an enormous burden on students striving for scholastic distinction and coveted spots in prestigious universities. This relentless pursuit of achievement, compounded by societal expectations and the looming fear of failure, exacts a toll on the mental well-being of students, giving rise to pervasive issues such as chronic stress, anxiety, depression, or burnout.
Navigating the landscape of mental health in Taiwanese high schools is further complicated by deeply ingrained cultural stigmas. These often shroud the struggles in silence and shame, creating barriers that hinder students from seeking help and perpetuating a distressing cycle. While strides have been made in addressing these concerns, there remains an imperative to foster a culture of openness and support. This article endeavours to unravel the complex layers of these struggles and aims to spark conversations that propel positive transformation.
Education in Taiwan
The Taiwanese education system is deeply rooted in the legacy of Confucian values and places a strong emphasis on academic achievement, discipline, and respect for authority. Spanning several years of education, it aims to prepare students for future scholastic and career pursuits. It begins with six years of elementary education, where students acquire foundational knowledge in subjects such as mathematics, Chinese language, English, science, and social studies. This phase focuses on building a strong educational base and developing essential skills in communication and problem-solving. Following elementary school, students progress to three years of junior high school. Here, they delve deeper into various subjects and receive more specialised instruction.
The curriculum expands to include subjects such as literature, history, geography, biology, chemistry, and physics. Additionally, students begin to explore elective courses based on their interests and career aspirations. The final stretch of the Taiwanese education system consists of three years in senior high school. This phase is crucial as it prepares students for the university entrance exams, which have a significant impact on their future academic pursuits. Senior high school students focus intensively on exam preparation, dedicating considerable time and effort to studying and reviewing the required curriculum.
The pinnacle of this academic odyssey culminates in the monumental university entrance exams, a rite of passage that echoes Confucian principles of meritocracy. The General Scholastic Ability Test (GSAT), commonly known as the joint college entrance exam, assesses students’ knowledge and skills across various subjects, including Chinese language, English, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences. The results of this exam play a vital role in determining students’ eligibility for admission into universities and colleges. Success in these exams is often equated not just with educational achievements but with societal stature.
To support students in their academic journey, Taiwan has made significant investments in education, with a focus on providing modern facilities and resources to enhance the learning experience. Schools are well-equipped with advanced laboratories, libraries, and multimedia classrooms. The integration of technology in education has become increasingly prevalent, with the use of computers, tablets, and online resources to support teaching and learning. The country also has a robust network of cram schools, also known as buxiban. Approximately 70 per cent of high school students in Taiwan attend cram schools, and 60 per cent of middle school students attend them as well. These privately-run institutions offer supplemental education and exam preparation services. Cram schools provide additional tutoring, practice exams, and study resources to help students excel in their studies and increase their chances of success in the university entrance exams.
The Taiwanese education system is characterised by a strong commitment to quality education and continuous improvement. Schools in Taiwan are equipped with modern facilities, and teachers undergo rigorous training to ensure their competence and ability to deliver effective instruction. The emphasis on discipline and respect for authority creates a structured learning environment that promotes academic excellence and personal growth. Yet, woven into this tapestry of academic dedication are the challenges that underpin the mental health of high school students. The intense competition inherent in the system, coupled with societal expectations and the fear of failure, casts a looming shadow. Stress, anxiety, and, at times, depression become companions in this arduous journey.
Mental health issues and their stigmas
In Taiwan, high school students face significant mental health challenges that have a profound impact on their well-being, academic performance, and overall quality of life. Stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout are common issues experienced by Taiwanese high school students, with alarming statistics highlighting the prevalence of these mental health concerns. Academic pressure is a major contributor to the mental health issues faced by high school students in Taiwan. The intense focus on academic achievement and the competitive nature of university entrance exams places immense pressure on students. According to a study conducted by the Child Welfare League Foundation, over 70 per cent of high school students in Taiwan experience high levels of stress. The fear of not meeting expectations and the pressure to excel academically can lead to heightened anxiety levels and burnout.
One of the significant barriers to addressing mental health issues among Taiwanese high school students is the cultural stigma surrounding mental health. Traditional beliefs and cultural norms often view mental health problems as a sign of weakness or personal failure. This stigma prevents students from seeking help and perpetuates the cycle of suffering. According to research conducted by the Taiwan Suicide Prevention Center, the suicide rate among students aged from 15 to 24 has been increasing, underscoring the urgency of addressing mental health concerns.
Efforts have been made in Taiwan to address mental health issues among high school students. Schools have implemented counselling services and mental health programs to provide support and resources for students. The Ministry of Education has also developed guidelines for mental health promotion in schools, emphasising the importance of awareness, prevention, and early intervention. These initiatives aim to create a supportive environment and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. However, despite these efforts, there are still many challenges in effectively addressing mental health issues among Taiwanese high school students. One of the key challenges is the lack of sufficient resources and funding for mental health support in schools. The demand for mental health services often exceeds the available resources, leading to long waiting lists and limited access to timely support for students.
Another challenge is the need to increase awareness and education around mental health. While progress has been made in reducing the stigma associated with mental health, there is still a long way to go. Many students, parents, and educators may still lack understanding and knowledge about mental health issues, which can hinder early identification and intervention. Additionally, the pressure to achieve high academic performance remains deeply ingrained in the education system and society, making it difficult to shift the focus towards holistic well-being. The emphasis on standardised tests and university entrance exams creates a competitive environment that prioritises academic success over mental well-being. To address this challenge, a comprehensive approach is needed, involving not only schools but also policymakers, parents, and the wider community.
To truly address mental health issues among high school students in Taiwan, it is crucial to rely on facts and statistics to highlight the severity of the problem. By emphasising the prevalence of stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout among students and showcasing the impact of these issues on their well-being and academic performance, we can raise awareness and advocate for better support and resources. Additionally, it is important to continue promoting a supportive and inclusive environment in schools, where students feel comfortable discussing their struggles and seeking help without fear of judgment or stigma.
In conclusion, the Taiwanese education system, deeply rooted in Confucian values, places a strong emphasis on academic achievement. High school students face intense competition and pressure to excel academically and secure admission to prestigious universities. This, combined with a rigorous curriculum, heavy workload, and societal expectations, can contribute to mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety, and a sense of constant pressure. Promoting a supportive environment, addressing stigma, and prioritising students’ well-being are essential steps toward addressing these challenges and fostering a healthier educational culture in Taiwan. Last but not least, it is essential to recognise that the problem discussed above extends beyond the Taiwanese borders, resonating with many other countries in the Sino-sphere where the pressures of academic achievement and the accompanying mental health challenges are shared experiences.
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Cover Image by NSaad (WMF) via Wikimedia Commons