West Australian schools have been urged to provide greater support for year 12's sitting WACE exams, after the number of students experiencing clinical levels of stress had risen significantly.
A study by the University of New South Wales revealed 42 per cent of year 12 students registered high levels of anxiety, severe enough to be of clinical concern.
The ratio was nearly double the population norm and significantly larger than recorded by previous studies.
Of the 722 students surveyed, 37 per cent of students experienced above average levels of stress, while 19 per cent were found to have physical symptoms such as nausea.???
Year 12 student Emily Spasevski is studying five WACE subjects at Perth's Sacred Heart College and said the lead up to exams had noticeable effects on her mood.
"I find myself more irritable," she said.
"I disregard people and have become more dismissive."
Emily claims the stress has also had profound effects on her sleep pattern.
"Personally, I find it hard to focus and sit there for hours on end typing and writing notes," she said.
"When I don't get a certain amount of work done, I'm laying [in bed] thinking about what I could have done.
"I like to set myself goals during the day and if I don't achieve them, I'm left stressing at night."
Emily said she was aware of several peers experiencing symptoms of anxiety.
"As students we don't want to put our hand up and say 'hey, I'm struggling'," she said.
"Everyone likes to joke about how hard things are, but if you really get down to the root of it, everyone is suffering.
"A lady that came in [to work] the other day said she basically lost a child for a year - her daughter sacrificed so much and didn't go out with friends because she was studying all the time."
Emily expressed her disappointment in the lack of empathy from a number of people who had taken to social media, criticising the students for speaking out.
"People say we don't understand what real stress is, but fail to realise that this is all we know," she said.
"We don't know what it's like having a mortgage; we don't know what it's like to have kids.
"Our life is school."
Headspace community awareness manager Annabeth Bateman said the issue was widespread and the organisation had reported an influx of students seeking advice.
"We've seen a big increase since last year," she said.
"Our numbers take a huge jump in August and September in the lead up to exams."
Ms Bateman said although the students levels of anxiety were at their highest during the examination period, the number of students who seek help generally goes down - and that's part of the problem.
"Students are usually busy studying and forget to seek help," she said.
"When you're struggling the most, that's when you really need that support in place."
Ms Bateman said lack of sleep was a common concern amongst students.
"Anxiety often leads to poor sleep and interrupted appetite," she said.
"When students don't get enough sleep it makes things harder for them, because the next day they're only operating on half a tank."
The study also indicated that stress, anxiety and pressure levels were found to be highest amongst girls.
But Ms Bateman encouraged students struggling to seek help, in aid of breaking down the stigma around mental health.
"Stress is a normal part of life and it's to be expected when you have exams," she said.
"But if it's getting to the point where it's interfering with your life, that's when you should be asking for help."
School Psychology Service manager Chris Gostelow said exams often brought about additional stress, and school staff had been trained to use a range of strategies to help students cope during these times.
"Staff work to build resiliency in students throughout their school years and by the time Year 12 arrives, students are well practised in sitting examinations," he said.
Ms Bateman claimed the impact of exams on mental health was not limited only to senior students.
"It's not just year 12's, it's students all throughout highschool - but there's certainly extra pressure on senior students," she said.
Emily said her school had recognised the widespread need for support and appropriate measures had been put in place to aid students during this difficult time.
"The school psychologist [at Sacred Heart] and the health captains were handing out chocolates saying 'have a kit-kat, have a time out' - it was a great way to advocate the importance of mental health," she said.
"We also received advice on how to stay calm during exams - there are some fantastic teachers here that are really supportive.
"It's good that at Sacred Heart we have teachers that aren't seen just as teachers - they're seen as adults and even friends."
Emily said she was hopeful WA schools would continue to provide additional support and offered advice for future students.
"My biggest regret was not getting into a good study routine throughout year 11 and 12 - the routine itself is so important," she said.
"I'd definitely say keep up your sport and social aspect - keeping a balance is so important.
"We can't put our life on hold for exams, it's just not reality."
Ms Bateman said Headspace had launched a new online based program to provide support to senior students entering the next stage of their lives.
"We understand a lot of students are really stressed, particularly about what happens after [exams]," Ms Bateman said.
"The Digital Work and Study Program can assist in navigating centrelink, looking at education options and writing a resume.
"It's really aimed at helping motivate young people and make sure they're aware of all of their options."
Students experiencing issues with mental health are encouraged to contact Headspace for additional support at www.headspace.org.au.