30 January 2023

Prof. Dominika Dudek: I dream of schools that teach students how to deal with stress

Interview with Prof. Dominika Dudek, psychiatrist, president of the Polish Psychiatric Association, head of the Department of Psychiatry at Jagiellonian University's Collegium Medicum, editor-in-chief of the journal "Polish Psychiatry," organizer of meetings with people of art, sports, and science in the series "Talks about the human being."

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Source: Pixabay

Is childhood the happiest period in life?

It should be. Children have a natural cheerfulness, the world’s curiosity, and life’s joy. Unfortunately, looking at how many children and youth require the support of psychiatrists or psychologists today, I have doubts that we are not destroying this natural happiness in them.

In what way?

We put them – both at home and in school – under pressure: for grades, achievement, and success. We require children to memorize overhelming amounts of school material, we sign them up for more classes or tutoring, filling their calendars to the brim – and at the same time, we don’t teach them how to deal with stress, what empathy and responsibility for another person are, how to talk to each other and cooperate. All that matters is individual success – measured by school grades, averages, and test scores. Not by happiness, a sense of accomplishment, or mental health.

When does it start?

Sometimes as early as the prenatal period. Pregnant women listen to Mozart – even though they don’t like classical music – because they’ve read that it will make them have a smarter baby. That’s an anecdote, of course, but there’s no denying that parents feel the pressure for a child’s success from its earliest years. A toddler can’t walk yet and already has to learn to swim. He barely knows a few words in his native language and is already enrolled in foreign language classes.

Where does this pressure come from?

From the fact that they themselves are subjected to it. We live in a society where you have to be young, beautiful, rich. And to be successful. We are stuck in this pattern because we have brought it from schools, the media, and sometimes from home. We learned that competition is more important than cooperation. Memorizing large amounts of materials is more important than being curious about the world. Having high grades is more important than having hobbies. This resides deep within us, so when our children are born – and we usually want the best for our children – we replicate this pattern. If the child is “successful,” we are fulfilled as parents. And often, we also want it to satisfy our own unfulfilled ambitions – because many parents, unfortunately, do not treat their offspring as fully autonomous people but as their extension.

It’s not surprising that parents want the best for their children. Even if they sometimes misunderstand what is good for them.

Of course. Not every parent needs to be an expert in child psychology. However, those who build the education system – should be. And in this system, there is not enough support for young people. Teaching them competencies that are really useful in life: conflict resolution skills, interpersonal communication, cooperation, and curiosity about the world. Instead, there is a requirement to learn by heart a great deal of material, sometimes completely useless in life. Parents want their child to go to a “good” school, but what is this “quality” of school measured by? Unfortunately, not by whether curiosity about the world is awakened in students or whether the school is a safe, supportive environment for them, but by how its students perform in tests and subject competitions. In my opinion, this is a trap. Sometimes I ask myself: do high grades really prove that a young person is well prepared for life? Do they teach him how to live among other people, build healthy relationships, and just be happy? I have my doubts. 

Grades are not ideal but an indicator of how much a student has learned. Is that a bad thing? 

Knowledge of the world is a beautiful value. Yet, if we acquire it solely to pass a test, we forget it shortly afterward. I dream of students gaining knowledge rather out of passion and curiosity about the world. And to a greater extent, they could choose what interests them. I also dream that they would learn by cooperating with others rather than – competing with them. Meanwhile, the reality of school is a perpetual comparison with others, rankings, and competitions. There are better ways to build a responsible, empathetic, and sensitive society. I recently came across a story of a man who visited an African tribe. He recounted that someone had organized a simple contest for children. The participant who ran the fastest to the finish line was to receive a prize. The children grabbed each other’s hands and ran to the goal together. Asked why they did so, they replied: Because I couldn’t enjoy the prize if others were sad. I mentioned this story because it shows that children have natural empathy, sensitivity, and willingness to cooperate.

And we are destroying it in them?

Exactly. And if we look at it through the lens of evolutionary biology, after all, empathy and cooperation were the very traits that led to the development of humanity. We had to cooperate in order to come out of the caves. Today, we are not lonely islands either. A single man will not fix the world. We have to act together.

Does what we learn in childhood really have a key impact on what we will be like as adults?

Yes. It comes from the way the brain works. Children’s brains are the most malleable, susceptible to acquiring knowledge but also: soft skills or values. If we teach young people how to live in society, how to take care of themselves and others, and simply: how to be a good, fulfilled person, we have a big chance to raise a conscious, wise and positive generation. It saddens me that so far, we are not doing well. 

Well. You’ve mentioned before that children and young people now often require the help of psychiatrists or psychologists. In what specifically?

Many young people can’t cope with the pressure. They are simply overtired, frustrated, overwhelmed, and on top of that, they don’t feel support from families or educators. This results in anxiety and depressive disorders. Some of these young people, not getting help from the environment, reach for the most definitive “solution.” The number of suicides among children and adolescents is increasing. I also get many young patients – graduating from high school or just out of it – addicted to psychoactive substances. I’m referring to both psychostimulants, such as amphetamines – which “help” them to live high, study more, and sleep less – and substances they reach for to reduce stress: tranquilizers, marijuana, alcohol, and so on. This is, of course, a hazardous and illusory solution, but these people know no other way to give vent to accumulated tensions and frustrations. No one has taught them how to deal with stress.

Do you think this should be taught in school?

That would make a lot of sense. It would be great to have classes with a psychologist who would talk to students about how to deal with stress, how to read the warning signals coming from their own bodies, but also – how to read these signals sent by colleagues. How to help them. What to pay attention to. But only again: I wouldn’t want such classes to be an additional burden on students who already have too much learning. But perhaps, instead of teaching children the detailed construction of a bacterial cell, it would be worth showing them how to help others (and themselves) in a mental crisis.