Helping Boston High School Students Manage Stressful Experiences

Stress has long been recognized as a significant public health problem given its associations with poor physical and mental health outcomes. Adolescence marks a substantial increase in stress exposure and in the prevalence of stress-related health problems. Social stressors related to bullying, victimization, and discrimination increase during adolescence, and violence exposure peaks during this period. Adolescents exposed to high levels of stress are at elevated risk for physical and mental health problems and risky behaviors, including smoking, drinking, and unhealthy eating.  Adolescence is thus a critically important period in which to intervene to prevent the onset of stress-related health problems.  Stress exposure is a major concern for Boston adolescents: 33.6% of Boston adolescents have been in a physical fight in the past year, 12.0% were physically assaulted at school, 11.6% were bullied on school property, and 5.6% did not attend school at least once in the preceding month because they felt unsafe.

The current project represents a partnership between the Boston Public Schools and Boston Children’s Hospital aimed at mitigating the harmful effects of stressful experiences on physical and mental health in Boston adolescents. The partnership was developed to address an unmet need in the Boston Public Schools Health and Wellness programs regarding how to help students develop adaptive strategies for managing stress.  The desire for such programming was expressed during community advisory board meetings with high school students in the Boston Public School System and in meetings with the Health and Wellness Department.  The goal of the proposed research is to address this need by designing and pilot testing a stress-management intervention for middle and high-school students in the Boston Public Schools. Formative research will assess needs and priorities of teachers and students as well as barriers to implementation and will directly inform intervention development, implementation, and evaluation. 

Although school-based stress-management interventions have the potential to mitigate the harmful effects of stress exposure, such interventions are rare. Existing research suggests that evidence-based techniques used to treat stress-related mental disorders—including mindfulness and relaxation—can be implemented in school settings with benefits for physical and mental health. The proposed research is focused on designing and testing a stress-management intervention to prevent the onset of health problems in Boston adolescents.

This project is funded by the Boston Children’s Hospital Collaborative Center for Community Research (C-CORE):