The Mental Health Toll of Academic PressureReading Time: 6 minutes
Academic pressure on young adults has reached intense levels. The stress of getting into the right college, making good grades, and landing the best internships—all in preparation for success in the workplace—takes an enormous toll on young adult mental health. Too often, academic success comes at the expense of young adults’ social and emotional development, and the pandemic’s impact on the education system and the job market isn’t helping.
Academic pressure may come from family expectations, the ambitious goals students set for themselves, or the demands placed on them by society at large. Coaches and school administrators may also push students to succeed. Whatever the source of academic pressure, the results can be detrimental to well-being on multiple levels. When young adults feel they must prioritize academic achievement over everything else—including physical health, positive relationships with peers and family, creative self-expression, and downtime to recharge—they pay a high mental health toll.
The College Admissions Scandal
In 2019, the enormous pressure associated with the college applications process came to light with the revelation of a long-running college admissions bribery scandal. Known as Operation Varsity Blues, the federal investigation found that 33 parents of college applicants had paid more than $25 million to William Rick Singer, who bribed college officials and inflated the students’ grades on college admissions entrance exams. Now the subject of a new Netflix documentary, the scandal showed the lengths that wealthy and highly privileged parents were willing to go to ensure that their kids got into the “best” schools. Hollywood actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were among those who pleaded guilty to paying Singer to get their daughters into top-ranking colleges.
While most families would never consider committing such crimes (nor have the necessary funds), the scandal illuminates the outsize importance that society places on academic achievement. Consequently, young people suffer through the stress of AP classes, take the SATs again and again in search of the highest possible score, and pull all-nighters, putting their mental health on the line. A survey by the Stanford affiliate Challenge Success found that two-thirds of high school students are “often or always worried” about getting into the college of their choice.
In the quest for external validation of their worth, Gen Z students lose valuable opportunities for connection with others, self, and their greater community.
In the quest for external validation of their worth, Gen Z students lose valuable opportunities for connection with others, self, and their greater community. In fact, students in high-achieving schools have been designated an “at-risk group” by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, due to the negative health impacts of chronic stress created by academic anxiety.
The New Academic Pressure
According to the American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in America report, 87 percent of college students report that their education is a significant source of stress, particularly the uncertainty around what’s to come. A full two-thirds of this age group say that the pandemic has made planning for the future feel “impossible.” A poll of college students around the country, conducted in fall 2020, found that the majority were concerned about what kinds of jobs they would be able to get after graduating, and many were considering switching majors in order to be more competitive in the job market. In a survey of graduate students, 23 percent of humanities majors decided to change their field of study and career plans as a result of the pandemic.
As the school year comes to a close, many college students are attending remote classes in their dorm rooms or from their childhood homes, while some high school seniors are deferring college acceptance, looking for work to help make up lost family income, or taking a gap year in the hope that things will be back to normal in 2022. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that spring 2021 enrollment decreased by 3.3 percent at four-year colleges and by 9.5 percent at community colleges, with the most marked drops among Native American, Black, Latinx, and Asian students.
Looking ahead to fall 2021, applications have increased dramatically at prestigious schools such as Harvard, Columbia, and MIT. The more selective colleges saw an average 17 percent increase in applications, and consequently are admitting fewer students. Moreover, many students who were deferring college acceptance last fall are returning to school, filling more of the available spots. In addition, the College Board has eliminated the SAT subject tests, putting more academic pressure on students to get high grades and do well on the college admissions tests that will be considered. At the same time, fewer first-generation students applied to colleges, and requests for federal and state financial assistance dropped by 10 percent.
The Impact of Academic Pressure on Mental Health
Without tools for academic stress management, young adults suffer. A 2019 review study found that academic pressure is associated with the following mental health symptoms:
- Increased substance use
- Impaired overall health and well-being
- Poor sleep quality, leading to problematic coping strategies such as taking sleeping pills, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol to help them sleep
- High levels of stress and burnout, which ironically result in lower academic achievement
- Depersonalization (feeling disconnected from one’s body and/or thoughts)
- Poorer quality of life.
In addition, the study found the following data regarding academic pressure:
- Two-thirds of students reported feeling stressed about poor grades
- 59 percent said they often worry about taking tests
- More than half of students reported academic anxiety regarding test taking, even when they felt prepared
- 37 percent of students said they feel very tense when studying
- 35 percent of college students reported having anxiety symptoms and 30 percent reported suffering from depression.
Know the Facts
87 percent of students surveyed in 2019 by the American College Health Association said they had felt overwhelmed at some point during the school year by everything they had to do, and 85 percent reported feeling mentally exhausted.
3 Keys to Managing Academic Anxiety
For high school seniors navigating the college admissions process and for college students making decisions about their education and career, it’s essential to find positive approaches to academic stress management. Here are three ways families can support young adults in creating a healthier relationship with academics.
Remember what matters. To ensure that young people aren’t receiving detrimental messages, parents may need to examine their own priorities and talk about them with their children. In one study, adolescents who believed that their parents valued character traits as much or more than achievement showed better mental health and less risk-taking behavior. Hence, adults can lead by example and demonstrate for young people the importance of using their time and energy for activities that enhance well-being rather than goal achievement.
Maintain balance. Valuing mental health over academic achievement involves a commitment to creating a balanced lifestyle. Young adults—and particularly college students—are notoriously poor at self-care, but even a little is better than none. Making time regularly to spend an hour in the gym, take a walk with a good friend, write in a journal, or lie on the grass with a book (even if it’s a textbook) can help counteract the stress of academic pressure, and also helps establish healthy habits for life after college.
Choose the right college, not the “best” college. In terms of the college admissions process, experts say that the most prestigious college isn’t always the smartest choice. Students who are able to engage more deeply in subjects or experiences that most interest them, within the environments where they are most comfortable, do better in school and are more likely to find work they enjoy once they graduate. Research analysis by Challenge Success found “no significant relationship between a school’s selectivity and student learning, future job satisfaction, or well-being.”
How a Strengths-Based Approach Eases Academic Pressure
At Newport Institute, our Learning Lab mentors and specialized tutors support young adults to make academic progress and build life skills without the stress of academic pressure. Our strengths-based approach guides young people to focus on what’s going right in their life, and encourages them to explore their unique gifts and talents rather than their perceived shortcomings.
This approach permeates all aspects of Newport Institute’s clinical model. Our expert clinicians and teachers help young adults find sustainable healing by learning to nurture their mental, emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual needs—rather than pursuing predetermined goals that don’t reflect their true interests. During their time with us, young adults process past trauma, develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stressors, and plant seeds for a meaningful life full of passion and purpose.