I could see him in the corner of my eye, and I could tell he was looking in my direction. I kept my eyes on my work. Most people if they have a question ask the front desk attendant, not the trainers. But he came up behind me.
“Look at how much I did on the overhead press,” he said, holding his phone in front of me.
“Wow,” I said, “That’s impressive!”
“Yeah, it’s good to do heavy weight in here after a stressful day,” he said.
“Oh, absolutely. This is the best place to be when you’re stressed,” I replied.
“Yeah, today was horrible. I teach in a high school, and one of the senior girls committed suicide last night,” he said.
My heart sank. “Aw, jeez. That’s terrible.”
He shook his head. “Today was bad. I had to get in here and get the stress out. I’ll be back tomorrow too.”
He looked toward the door and started walking. “All right. See you tomorrow,” he said.
I glanced back at my work, heart still heavy. I couldn’t tell if he was mad, stressed, confused, or distraught. Maybe it was all the above. I said a quick prayer for the girl’s family.
The next day I opened up my school email and saw a message from the head of school. It was a school-wide email clarifying what had happened with a certain student, whose name I didn’t recognize. I opened the message, and my heart sank. Two nights before, a male student took his own life.
The Prevalence of Mental Health Issues in High School and College
Unfortunately, this isn’t all that uncommon. In America at least, most people have experienced hearing the news of a classmate’s suicide (or news of their child’s classmate’s suicide). It happened the one year I taught middle school. All staff got an email about an hour before school’s end informing us of an emergency meeting. The moment students left, we all huddled into the 7th grade language arts room, where our principal told us in tears that one of the high school students committed suicide a few hours ago. Several teachers gasped.
“Who was it?” one of the teachers asked, her voice shaking. At that moment I realized she likely knew the student. She had been the 6th grade math teacher for a long time. It was a small community—only one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. The middle school teachers knew every high schooler except transfers.
Our principal said his name.
“Oh no,” the 6th grade math teacher said, immediately stepping back and burying her face in our social studies teacher’s shirt.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition, and “suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10 – 24.” For those adolescents who develop mental illness, it takes, on average, eight to ten years before they get help[i].
Regarding college students,
Researchers from the World Health Organization, led by Columbia University Psychology Professor Randy P. Auerbach, surveyed nearly 14,000 first-year college students from eight countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the U.S.) and found that 35 percent struggled with a mental illness. Auerbach says this finding “represents a key global mental health issue.”[ii]
Furthermore, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, “Anxiety continues to be the most predominant presenting concern among college students (41.6%), followed by depression (36.4%), and relationship problems (35.8%). Other common concerns are suicidal ideation (16.1%), alcohol abuse (9.9%), sexual assault (9.2), ADHD (8.9%), and self-injury (8.7%)”[iii].
What’s the Problem?
Adolescence is a turbulent time. Indeed, “50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24”[iv]. High school and college years are the time when most mental illness begins.
The brain undergoes significant change during this time of life, and it follows that the brain is more susceptible to maladaptation. According to research on psychiatric disorders and adolescence:
The relationship between typical changes in the adolescent brain and the onset of psychopathology is not a unitary phenomenon, but an underlying theme may be conceptualized as “moving parts get broken”. Adolescence is characterized by major changes in the neural systems that subserve higher cognitive functions, reasoning and interpersonal interactions, cognitive control of emotions, risk-vs-reward appraisal and motivation. Not surprisingly, when not adequately surmounted, it is precisely these challenges that increase the risk of cognitive, affective and addictive disorders…Adolescence is a time of substantial neurobiological and behavioral change. These changes are usually beneficial and optimize the brain for the challenges ahead, but may also confer a vulnerability to certain types of psychopathology.[v]
It makes sense that mental illness develops during adolescence. The brain is changing and this is when many individuals experience true hardship for the first time. The amount of social, mental, academic, and athletic pressure placed on students doesn’t help.
- Pressures and Stress
Research suggests that the expectations placed on the children of parents with higher social status increases suicide risk and self-harm risk: “Children from privileged backgrounds – social class I (doctors, lawyers, academics, etc.) appear to be at increased risk. While traditionally a low-risk group, children of high social class parents, especially females, may feel additional academic pressure during adolescence because of higher parental- and self-expectations”[vi].
This makes sense. In America, we tell high school students (especially middle-class, upper-middle class, and upper-class) that if they want to be successful, they need to go to a prestigious university. To do this, students must earn good grades, complete many hours of volunteer service, play a sport, play an instrument, be involved in student council, be involved in other school organizations, and have other hobbies they can tell colleges about in their applications. This is busyness that rivals the busyness of an adult working full-time, or even over 40 hours a week. Some kids thrive under this pressure, some don’t.
For those who don’t—well, too bad. You want to be successful, right? You don’t want to work in a gas station for the rest of your life, right?
I was one of these kids. I developed depression at 15. Within a year I started feeling the pressure to polish my resume for college. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t have the energy. But I had to.
Much of the same pressure applies in college. To graduate in four years, you must take between 12 and 18 hours of classes per week every semester. This can be a heavy load. For students with existing mental health conditions, this is probably hard enough. But to properly take care of yourself so you can take that many classes, you need to eat well (which takes time), sleep enough (which, for most people, is 7-9 hours per night), exercise regularly (which takes time), have rest time (which is longer for those with mental illness), and have social time. And that’s not mentioning work, which many students need to do to pay rent or help pay for college (crippling debt after college is another topic in itself).
I’ve never met a college student who isn’t swamped with work. They’re constantly stressed. These conditions are just asking for mental health problems.
Because of all the work and other demands placed on high school and college students, they don’t sleep enough. A National Sleep Foundation poll from 2006 concluded that “more than 87 percent of high school students in the United States get far less than the recommended eight to 10 hours, and the amount of time they sleep is decreasing”[vii]. Students have way too much going on, but they know the only way to “succeed” in school is to complete all their work and fulfill all their obligations. Even if they manage time well and use healthy coping mechanisms for stress, they’ll still lose sleep simply because the amount of work they have. In high school and college, lack of sleep becomes a badge of honor, a way of showing how dedicated you are to success. But it’s nothing anyone (including these students’ teachers) should be proud of. The consequences of sleep deprivation are far-reaching: “Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer myriad negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts. It’s a problem that knows no economic boundaries.”
Research is starting to show that suicide rates increase during the school year[viii]. This doesn’t surprise me. I went through teacher training to become an English teacher, and I taught and tutored for a total of two years. For high school and college, I think teachers assign too much work. Some assign work like their class is the only class students take. Teachers and professors need to be aware of how much work they assign, and they need to do a better job of considering students’ health. Many teachers and professors tell their students to take care of themselves and then render it impossible with how much work they give. Let kids be kids. Let them have lives. Peter Gray sums up the negative effect of scholastic pressure well in the previously-mentioned article,
School is clearly bad for children’s mental health. The tragedy is that we continue to make school ever more stressful, even though research shows that none of this is necessary. Young people learn far more, far better, with much less stress (and at less public expense) when they are allowed to learn in their own natural ways, as I have pointed out in many of my previous posts and in my book, Free to Learn.
- College culture
College culture is a problem in America. Many students go to college for the “experience”—which usually means drinking, partying, sex, and going to football games. Some of these students still excel academically, some of them don’t. This culture and the social pressure to conform that goes with it is a breeding ground for addictive behaviors (alcohol, drugs, and sex addiction). And addictive behaviors are detrimental to mental health, even if that manifests itself further down the road.
- Big classes, big schools
This is an issue in high school and college. For high school students, having big classes means less interaction with the teacher. It’s easier to get lost in large classes, especially for quiet students who are hurting. The teacher may think there’s nothing wrong with the student. However, if the teacher had a smaller class and more opportunity to work one-on-one with all students, he or she would be more likely to spot concerning behaviors. Research suggests that feeling involved in school (perhaps more likely for students in smaller schools) decreases suicide and self-harm risk: “pupils with low levels of school engagement and involvement are more likely to attempt or seriously think about taking their own life or deliberately harm themselves”[ix].
That’s not to say that mental illness and suicide don’t happen in small schools. I’ve witnessed student suicide in a small community.
At the end of the day, how close-knit a community is likely determines the suicide risk of its school(s) (see the research study above). In big cities and big school districts, it’s harder to have a close-knit community (although not impossible).
This is one of the cons of large universities, in my opinion. My freshman year I attended a small school in northeast Texas. I’m introverted and I had zero problem feeling socially connected during my time there. However, after I transferred to one of the largest universities in the country, it took me almost two years to feel remotely connected. Shocker: my mental health suffered drastically during that time.
- Hopeless ideologies
This isn’t discussed enough in regards to mental health. In my opinion, this is a big problem facing our country for numerous reasons.
The anti-religious, often atheistic ideologies pushed by college professors affects almost everyone, whether we realize it or not. Influencers (i.e. politicians, teachers, writers, speakers, researchers, business owners and entrepreneurs, etc.) usually go through college. Some may come to college already holding anti-religious or amoral beliefs, but all are exposed to them in college, whether prior beliefs are reinforced or new beliefs emerge. These people—again, I’m speaking generally—then go into the world and advocate for inherently atheistic beliefs and policies (whether they realize it or not). Ideas are contagious, and college is a place for ideas.
If professors are increasingly atheistic, the general population will likely follow. As Christians, we know that beliefs grounded in atheism produce only death and decay. Universities are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) encouraging harmful mindsets, which only results in people doing more to harm themselves.
If life has no meaning, then life is inherently hopeless. This mindset is a catalyst for the destruction of mental health. If all truth is relative and there is no right and wrong, what’s stopping someone from sleeping around or using drugs? Universities are encouraging self-destructive behavior. We need to call it for what it is and start the conversation about alternatives or how we can address the issue.
Are We Willing to Change Our Systems?
I understand that adolescents need to develop coping skills. I understand they need to learn how to push through challenges. I’m not saying we need to ensure our kids experience no hardship whatsoever. Healthy coping skills, time management, and perseverance should all be taught to high school and college students. But we also need to examine our systems and be willing to change ineffective and unhealthy traditions. Research studies increasingly confirm school’s negative effect on mental health, yet few people listen and fewer still do anything about it. If this continues, we will only perpetuate high school and college students’ mental health struggle.
[i] “Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. 3 June 2014, https://www.nami.org/getattachment/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf
[ii] Hess, Abigail. “Massive survey finds 1 in 3 college freshmen struggle with mental health—here are 4 things you can do.” 4 Oct. 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/04/4-ways-to-be-proactive-about-your-mental-health-in-college.html
[iii] Mistler, Brian et al. “The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey.” 2012, http://files.cmcglobal.com/Monograph_2012_AUCCCD_Public.pdf
[iv] “Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. 21 Sept. 2016, https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/Children-MH-Facts-NAMI.pdf
[v] Paus, Tomás et al. “Why do many psychiatric disorders emerge during adolescence?.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience vol. 9,12 (2008): 947-57. doi:10.1038/nrn2513
[vi] Young, Robert et al. “Do schools differ in suicide risk? The influence of school and neighbourhood on attempted suicide, suicidal ideation and self-harm among secondary school pupils.” BMC public health vol. 11 874. 17 Nov. 2011, doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-874
[vii] Richter, Ruthann. “Among Teens, Sleep Deprivation an Epidemic.” Stanford Medicine News Center. 8 Oct. 2015, https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/10/among-teens-sleep-deprivation-an-epidemic.html
[viii] Gray, Peter. “Children’s and Teens’ Suicides Related to the School Calendar.” Psychology Today. 31 May 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201805/children-s-teens-suicides-related-the-school-calendar
[ix] Young, Robert et al.