Academic pressure can significantly impact teens’ mental health, leading to stress, anxiety, and depression. The demand to excel academically can create overwhelming stress, reducing their ability to cope with other life challenges and potentially leading to burnout and mental health issues.
Educational attainment has been on a steady increase in industrialized countries around the world. Even with concerns about the quality of education abound, there are more new college graduates than new high school dropouts in the United States.
Yet with a stark increase in education levels comes a much more competitive job landscape, which, amid record levels of wealth inequality and a growing gap between worker productivity and wages, is increasingly putting the onus on students to work harder and harder at an early stage in their life to secure financial stability in the future.
Parents aren’t blameless in this, either. Studies show that rising parental expectations are linked to a rise in perfectionism among college students, resulting in increases in levels of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, research also shows that young people today perceive their parents as more critical than about 30 years ago.
Should we back off students a little bit? Let’s take a closer look at some of the data, and how academic pressure might be affecting teen mental well-being.
How Academic Pressure Has Changed
Changes in education systems around the industrialized world show that teens are effectively being asked to do more than ever before, while resources regarding mental health or support for teens are lacking, if at all present.
Systematic reviews of available data show that teens experience rates of depression and anxiety as a result of academic pressure in industrialized countries throughout the world, based on a review of studies conducted throughout Asia and Europe.
These changes are relatively new. We’ve mentioned that teens today find that their parents have more expectations for them and are more critical when compared to what teens in the late 1980s thought, and more studies are finding that students today are struggling with higher rates of severe mental health problems than in years past.
However, we don’t know why. Some potential reasons include:
- A global job market and higher levels of competition around the world.
- A greater emphasis on standardized testing and higher test scores.
- A more generally competitive campus environment and culture.
- The pressure within the school to keep up with more extracurricular activities.
- Today’s parents place a higher value on academic success.
- Parenting styles that emphasize individuality and encourage competition may have become more popular.
- Outside stressors may render today’s teens more susceptible to the stressors of a full-time academic experience.
Coping Strategies for Ambitious Teens
Teens today are contending with greater academic pressure. While they might not be able to do much about the way schools test their aptitude or organize their curriculum, they may be able to exercise control over other aspects of their life – particularly elements that might help improve mental resilience and stress management, such as healthier coping techniques, open communication with peers, teachers, and parents, and greater access to professional help.
Healthy coping strategies for stressed teens include reorganizing study periods to allow for longer periods of mental recovery and rejuvenation, improving cognitive functioning and memory, and avoiding loss of sleep. Restlessness is common among college students and may be a contributing factor to their stress, affecting memory and cognition as well as emotional resilience.
Whether we like it or not, teens are more likely to strive for perfection and more likely to see their parents or educators as a source of criticism and their peers as potential competitors than before. This pressure contributes to rising rates of anxiety and depression among young adults.
It can be seen as a double-edged sword. Teens today enjoy more opportunities to explore secondary education – on the other hand, they also cite academic rigor as one of the primary causes of their mental health problems. More specifically, teens cite the pressure to score well, achieve a better grade, and secure better opportunities for their future, or the difficulty of managing an overwhelming workload, often while trying to manage extracurricular activities or one or more side jobs.
Are we expecting too much of our teens? The answer may be more complicated than that. Teens today strive to shoot for the stars because they’re told to and because they’re aware that they might have to. Young adults are in a stage of emotional maturity and are more aware than ever of the world around them – including the sacrifices their parents have made to afford them their opportunities for success. Meanwhile, they endure grueling academic programs and pressure themselves to strive for excellence, to the point that suicides and suicide attempts rise during term time.
A positive first step would be to acknowledge the impact of academic pressure and emphasize programs both at home and at school to help young adults improve their mental well-being. At what point should schools intervene to address a student’s mental health? In what shape or form should schools invest in counseling or talk therapy programs for students with symptoms of anxiety or depression?
As institutions continue to explore these questions, parents need to consider talking to their teens about their mental well-being and feelings towards academic pressure.
Review how your teen’s demeanor and behavior have changed since school started. Are they managing well? Are they consistent in their grades while still making time for their friends and own interests? Have they been able to explore or develop positive coping habits to deal with academic stressors? Or have they been struggling often?
Professional mental health programs can help teens who struggle to balance their social lives and academic responsibilities. We at Visions work with teens to address severe mental health issues, as well as substance use problems and dual diagnoses.