Doctors Give A Big Thumbs Up for Race to Nowhere's Campaign for Change


Doctors Give A Big Thumbs Up for Race to Nowhere’s Action on Teen Sleep

More than 1,000 physicians nationwide took time out of their busy schedules to watch Race to Nowhere via an online, live stream in March, in recognition of National Sleep Awareness Week. 

Their response was overwhelmingly positive. And many pediatricians said the film accurately describes the high levels of stress-related health problems they see in young patients.

In post-screening surveys and a follow-up debriefing call, physicians noted that the American “culture of achievement” often means exhausting homework loads, overscheduled days, a high-stakes college admissions process and lesson plans that increasingly emphasize standardized testing over critical thinking.

Doctors See Increased Teen Anxiety

The result of these success-at-all-costs practices is an increase in teen stress, depression, insomnia and even suicide, Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician an associate dean for curriculum at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, said during the call.

“Our children are very stressed and suffering,” wrote another physician from Pennsylvania. “If we want better education in our country, we need to change it from the ground up.”

In response to 24-hour demands on their time from teachers, coaches, and extracurricular pursuits, some students are abusing caffeinated beverages or prescription stimulants such as Ritalin or Adderall, said New Jersey psychiatrist Thomas Zaubler. A drive for perfection also makes it difficult for these students to learn from failure, he and others said. He observes that even small setbacks can provoke significant anxiety in some young patients.

Physicians See “Race to Nowhere” Symptoms in Own Families

For a number of physicians, Race to Nowhere’s portrayal of student anxiety and burnout hit close to home. Dr. Slavin noted that he became interested in student burnout and stress by observing the pressures on his own children. And a physician in California revealed that his bright 8-year-old daughter’s attention deficit disorder makes it difficult for her to keep up with the homework. “She came home the other day and expressed matter-of-factly that she sees herself as "stupid" compared to the other kids,” he wrote.

Another doctor felt driven to make a difficult professional choice to keep her sons engaged in learning, taking a leave of absence from work to homeschool her two sons. Both were bored and discouraged by heavy homework burdens and the constant focus on drilling for standardized tests.

Sleep Deprivation a Mounting Concern

Doctors also worried that young patients are getting far fewer than the recommended 9.25 hours of sleep a night.

“Sleep deprivation is zapping the creativity and fun from childhood,” noted a doctor in Kentucky. Another pediatrician from San Antonio, Texas said the number-one issue he sees in his practice, particularly among teen patients, is anxiety “that results from everyone going so fast and furious and getting no sleep at night.”

Another Highland Park, Illinois pediatrician responded that “You clearly have my support in any campaign that works toward more sleep-friendly schools; this is one of my greatest concerns as both a parent and a pediatrician.”

Doctors Urge Community Action

While respondents acknowledged that it can be difficult for families and children to “not get sucked up into the race,” most said the film inspired them to take action. They agreed that policy change, including those recommendations outlined in “Race to Nowhere”’s Sleep Challenge, is crucial.

They also agreed that physicians can play an important role in advocating for changes in their local schools and communities. At St. Louis University, Slavin led curriculum and grading reforms for medical students that helped reduce students’ reported levels of anxiety and depression by as much as half. He is a strong advocate for the less-is-more approach to study loads for medical students.

“You can have both,” said Slavin, who also organized a screening of “Race to Nowhere” last year. “You can cut down on the academic pressures and have not just the same level of achievement, but better achievement.”

Physicians said they would encourage colleagues to watch the film and make questions about headaches, stomach trouble and other stress-related ailments a routine part of health screenings. Others vowed to help local professional, school and parent organizations to make the film available in their communities. Zaubler, for example, has organized a screening of “Race to Nowhere” at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey in May. 

One respondent said she hoped the film’s message could reach parents who are knowingly or not contributing to their children’s anxiety. 

“I think that many parents (especially high achieving parents) have very high expectations from their kids,” said a doctor from Fort Collins, Colo. “Many of these expectations may be unrealistic and damaging. Again, do these parents realize what they are doing? Do they know the health implications?”