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Does School Cause Mental Illness? How School Can Affect Youth’s Mental Health 

how does high school affect mental health

Adolescents are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis. According to the newest data from the Center of Disease Control (CDC), more than 1 in every 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the recent pandemic. Nearly half of students felt persistently sad or hopeless, while about two-thirds of these teenagers had difficulty completing schoolwork. 

This means that in a classroom of about 30 students, it’s estimated that 10 individuals were (and may still be) struggling with their mental health. 

While mental health issues escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic, data shows that we have been trending in this direction for some time. In 2019, the prevalence of mental illness among youth was also notably high in comparison to years prior. According to experts, the rise in mental illness among youth could be due to a number of factors, including: 

  • The pervasiveness of social media and its impact on youth 
  • Heightened academic pressure among teenagers 
  • Frequent use of substances like drugs and alcohol 
  • Increased openness about mental health struggles 
  • Broader issues such as racism, inequality, gun violence, and climate change affecting our society 

Unfortunately, however, not all youth get professional help. In fact, most youth in the United States — close to 80 percent — who need mental health services do not get them. 

As a parent, you may suspect your teen is struggling with their mental health. You may have noticed your teen is becoming more distant, less motivated, or exhibiting abnormal emotional or behavioral changes. Perhaps you are worried about your teen’s vulnerability, especially during this back-to-school season. You are not alone. 

“Does school cause mental illness?” and “How does school affect mental health?” are two very frequent questions asked by hundreds of parents. After all, sending your child off to school – whether that’s middle school, high school, or college – reduces your ability to really monitor them. You are, inherently, less involved with their day-to-day activities and friendships. 

While education has obvious benefits on all adolescents and young adults, going to school also comes with some inevitable risks. For example, school introduces opportunities for bullying, peer pressure, self-esteem issues, and of course, academic stress. Going to school also causes many children and teens to recognize learning difficulties. However, does school actually affect mental health? Let’s find out. 

Does School Cause Mental Illness? 

While there are common risk factors for mental illness that are introduced in school, school itself does not cause mental health problems. Typically, mental health problems during adolescence stem from: 

  • Biological factors, in which chemical balances in the brain cause a person to be more vulnerable to mental illness 
  • Genetic factors, influenced by a family history of mental health problems 
  • Environmental factors, typically in the early stages of life and adolescence 

Of course, environmental factors that trigger mental health problems can happen at school, or stem from a school-related experience. For example, common reasons that teenagers struggle with mental illness include: 

  • Stress related to academic or athletic performance 
  • Bullying or inability to fit in with social circles 
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth (i.e. feelings of inadequacy) 
  • Social expectations and the desire to be or look a certain way  
  • Verbal, physical, or emotional abuse 
  • Traumatic experiences, such as an accident or loss of a loved one 
  • Substance abuse, which may stem from peer pressure 
  • Constant worry or anxiety about other life stressors 
  • An unstable home environment or unsafe living conditions 

So, How Does School Affect Mental Health? 

While school alone does not cause mental illness among youth, it is important for parents to recognize that certain school-related factors could trigger the onset of a mental health problem. 

For example, academic stress is a leading cause of mental health struggles in students. More than ever, adolescents and young adults feel pressure to go to college, pursue extracurricular activities, excel in their courses, and pass universal, standardized tests. In other words, some students feel like they need to balance—and excel at—it all. This is felt across a variety of student populations, no matter their upbringing, their socioeconomic status, or their learning abilities.  

One recent study, conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, found that students in “high-achieving schools” (who commonly grow up in affluent families) are equally at risk of developing behavioral and mental health problems as those living in foster care or poverty, those with incarcerated parents, and recent immigrants. 

When facing academic stress, adolescents and young adults are more likely to develop anxiety or depression. They also experience less well-being and tend to do poorly in school. When given a better academic situation, or academic support, research suggests that students experience improved mental health. So, what leads to academic stress? 

Academic stress can be caused by: 

  • High-stakes testing, especially standardized exams 
  • Demanding academic coursework 
  • Excessive homework or projects 
  • High pressure from parents to succeed academically 
  • Pressure to get into college or university 
  • Overbooked schedules and the pressure to balance multiple activities and school 
  • Fear of failure 
  • Lack of sleep or poor appetite in trying to meet expectations at school 
  • Transferring schools or transitioning to a new school 
  • Classrooms that do not properly fulfill a student’s developmental or learning needs 
  • Stressful relationships with peers at school 
  • Conflicts with teachers or peers at school 

As a parent, it’s important to recognize that these factors may be affecting your child, teen, or young adult. However, by having open conversations in your home, you will be able to keep in touch and keep tabs on your child’s well-being. Ask questions related to your child’s feelings about school and any issues they may be facing. Ask about their relationships with faculty and peers. Let them know that, as much as you want them to succeed, you also want them to be happy and healthy most of all. Tell them to prioritize their mental and physical health first and foremost. This can help to remove some of the pressure your teen places upon themselves. 

You can also teach your son or daughter how to effectively cope with stress. While this will vary depending on their age, and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach, you can teach stress-reducing tactics such as journaling, exercise, meditation, and art therapies as ways to mitigate some of the stress your child may be facing. You can also encourage them to: 

  • Take breaks and take time for themselves to de-stress 
  • Set realistic yet flexible deadlines so they do not feel the need to crunch 
  • Make a plan or to-do list, when they are unable to focus 
  • Have open conversations with you, their parent(s), about their concerns 
  • Develop good relationships with their teachers 
  • Develop the ability to ask for help when it’s needed – asking for help is okay! 

Parents should also be open about the topic of mental health in your home. If your child is facing issues with depression, anxiety, trauma, or stress, these should be talked about. Early intervention and support for teens struggling with mental health issues can be an essential step in setting them up for long-term health and success. 

How Does School Positively Impact Mental Health? 

While the above focuses on the potential implications of school-related factors on mental health, it is important to make clear that education has clear, positive benefits on a person’s mental well-being. According to research cited by News-Medical.net, higher levels of education are associated with better mental health, due to the availability of choices that educated people have in their lifetimes (such as the ability to choose a career, choose to travel, spend money, and more). Lower education is generally associated with a lack of control and resilience, as well as exposure to more day-to-day stressors. This can negatively impact a person’s mental health and lead to disorders like depression.  

Therefore, education can be key to success—physically and mentally. 

How Does Mental Illness Affect School Performance? 

Mental health problems are known to disrupt a person’s daily life and functioning, especially when left untreated. School performance is no exception. As cited by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, mental illness can affect a student’s energy level, dependability, ability to concentrate, mental aptitude, and their optimism towards success. Research also shows that depression and anxiety are also associated with lower grade point averages (GPAs), and depression often leads students to drop out of school.  

For example, in a survey from the American College Health Association, college students reported that their mental health was being negatively stress (30%), anxiety (22%), sleeping problems (20%), and depression (14%). This survey was conducted in 2015, and it is highly likely that these figures have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Mental health problems affect more than just school performance, however. When left untreated, mental illness in youth can also lead to dangerous substance abuse and the development of co-occurring mental health disorders. It can also lead to incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, poor quality of life, self-harm, and suicide. For these reasons and more, addressing mental health as soon as possible is critical to helping your child. 

Early Intervention is Important for Mental Illness 

Most mental health problems begin during the adolescent and young adult years, with 75 percent of mental illnesses emerging by age 24. Being able to recognize your child’s mental health is extremely important for their well-being, their health, and their future success. As a parent, you should know: 

  • Mental illness is very common during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. You are not alone in this.  
  • Mental health disorders are treatable. There are an array of treatments available to your teen or young adult. The right treatment program for your teen is out there. Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn more. 
  • Early intervention strategies are effective. The earlier you address mental health problems, the better chance your teen has at lasting outcomes and good health. 

If you are worried about your young one facing a mental health problem, do not hesitate to reach out for help. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment provider for young adults and adolescents struggling. You may contact us at 877-581-1793 to learn more, or explore our programs online