Is academic stress impacting your teens mental health?

The world is abuzz right now with the term ‘mental health’. It’s the new buzz word, used so often that it almost seems a little meaningless at times. Nowadays, it’s important to look into the nitty gritty side effects of experiencing problems with our mental health, and just as importantly, keeping an eye out for our children’s.

When problems occur, it’s not always immediately obvious, especially now. Living through a pandemic and its subsequent lockdown means that almost everyone is suffering from things like anxiety, frustration, hopelessness and anger at times. These are abnormal times, and everybody reacts differently to them.

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Particularly with teens and young adults, it can be difficult to tell what is just normal stress and what is actually a serious problem. With the pressures of school going online, lack of social contact with people and anxiety rates rising anyway regardless of the pandemic, it’s unsurprising that parents might find it difficult to tell when it’s time to act.

School has been cited as one of the main concerns facing young people these days, with changes in format to every aspect of their education, from day-to-day classes to major, life-deciding exams. A study with The Ahead Journal conducted by Aoife Price, a researcher on the Disability Advocacy Research in Europe (DARE project), found that levels of mental illness, mental distress and low wellbeing among students in higher education is increasing. One scary statistic cited that 75% of adults with mental illness first experience symptoms before the age of 25.

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But it’s school. It’s normal for them to be stressed, right?

But how stressed is too stressed? AHEAD’s report found that the time of highest stress levels and therefore the time with the highest risk, is when students first enter third level education. In the academic year 2016/17, AHEAD found a 46% rise in the number of new students registering with a mental health condition.

‘Academic demands and studying have been found to be likely to trigger mental distress (NUS 2013). In general, higher education courses require a degree of self-directed learning which can be a major shift/change to what student is used to coming from school. This has the potential to affect a student’s ability to cope. There appears to be increased pressure to gain a high-class degree in recent times. There is a wide discrepancy in the proportion of students who receive a First, compared to the number who expect to achieve one when beginning their course (Brown 2016).’

And that study was conducted in normal times, when academia was certainly stressful, but was experiencing nowhere near the levels of disruption and inconsistency that it is now. The Children’s Commissioner’s report about how lockdown has affected children of the UK found that schoolwork and exams were one of the largest stressors for young people in the pandemic – not the actual pandemic itself. AHEAD’S study happened three or four years previous to The Children’s Commissioner’s report, yet also flags grades as a major source of stress. And this is before the pandemic affected the job market, their educational experience and the mental health services available.

‘An associated risk with poor mental health is the effect on students’ grades. They may receive lower grades than expected or may be required to repeat an academic year. Some services are restricted to repeat students further disadvantaging them at this crucial time. Poor mental health is associated with an added risk of dropping out of college, particularly when support is unavailable or not sought. Consideration of dropping out from university is stronger for those with poor mental health, with 4 in 10 considering dropping out (Unite 2016). Students with mental health difficulties are more vulnerable to withdrawal than any other category of student with disability. However, once supported appropriately they are more successful in higher education (Twomey et al. 2010).’

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Some signs of mental health affecting education that recommend looking out for are:

  • Falling below usual standards in their work
  • School or college is not as enjoyed as it used to be
  • Everyday scenarios are making them anxious
  • They have a hard time concentrating or focusing properly
  • They skip school or college entirely because it feels too overwhelming
  • Interaction with friends and classmates happens less often

Let them know they can talk to you

Let them know that the people closest to them are willing to listen and help – just knowing that can open up the conversation. Be someone they can trust and who can support them through this tough period. The key is letting them know you’re open to the conversation and providing a listening ear for their worries and frustrations.

Look into school or college supports

If they’ve approached you with their problems, looking into how the school can help with academic stress impacting mental health could be your next step. With colleges and secondary schools, there are services and places of support in place to deal with exactly this kind of thing. They won’t be the forts or the last to avail of these services and they can help more with the pressures directly relating to the academic institution. Or if they’re not comfortable going through the school, have plenty of information available about mental health services for young people 25 and under.

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