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Mental illness rises alongside pressure to succeed

Mental health and illness is a major concern for today’s youth. According to a survey released by Pew Research Center in February, 70 percent of teens said they saw anxiety and depression as a “major problem” for people in their age group, topping concerns such as bullying (55 percent), drug and alcohol use (51 and 45 percent, respectively) and poverty (40 percent).

These perceptions reveal troubling trends in adolescent mental health that track with national research. A massive study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Abnormal Psychology this year found an alarming rise in adolescent mental illness from 2009 to 2017.

The study, which covered a sample of over 600,000 young people from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, saw a 63 percent increase in major depression and a 71 percent increase in psychological distress for adolescents aged 18 to 25 over the past decade.

One may wonder what’s driving this precipitous rise in mental illness among young people. One contributing factor that college students are all too familiar with is increasing pressure to succeed in school.

The Pew survey found, for instance, that a supermajority (60 percent) of teens said they felt “a lot” of pressure to get good grades, far ahead of other pressures like looking good (29 percent) and fitting in socially (28 percent).

The pressure to achieve academic success goes beyond just grades. Success in school has powerful implications for one’s future career path and financial well-being.

A 2015 study led by Michael T. French, a sociologist with the University of Miami, looked at the relationship between grades and future success. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, the authors found that a one-point increase in high school GPA essentially doubles one’s probability of completing college (from 21 percent to 42 percent) and raises annual earnings by about 13 percent.

In other words, the stakes are high, and young people know it.

In the absence of conclusive research, conversations about youth mental illness will continue to play out in academia, the media and popular discourse. In these conversations, we must not forget the role that school plays as a dominant force in shaping young people’s present and future.

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