Tests, papers, projects, reports, grades and peer pressure are all classic sources of stress and anxiety for many students in high school or college. More often than ever before students and young adults are becoming less able to cope with this stress and anxiety.
Brian Stack, a high school principal in New Hampshire, reports that over the last ten years, the number of students who missed class because of anxiety or depression has risen dramatically in his school (Stack, 2018). Unfortunately, Stack’s school is not an outlier. According to the Child Mind Institute, nearly one in three teenagers are anxious by the time they are 18 (Stack, 2018). Rates of depression are up as well, and students today are twice as likely to seek help from a mental health professional than students in the 1980s (Stack, 2018).
College students have also seen a rise in anxiety and depression in the last decade. The American College Health Association found that 62 percent of undergraduates in 2016 reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year (Denizet-Lewis, 2017). This is a 12 percent increase from 2011. The Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. has reported similar findings. In 1985, 18 percent of incoming college freshmen reported that they felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do (Denizet-Lewis, 2017). 2010 saw the number increase to 29 percent and in 2016 the number jumped to 41 percent (Denizet-Lewis, 2017).
There may be a few reasons for this dramatic rise of student anxiety.
A recent study found that people ages 18 to 35, the Millennial Generation, have higher levels of perfectionism (Perry, 2018). Perfectionism is defined in the study as “combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations” (Perry, 2018; Tinker, 2018). Millennials feel overburdened by this perfectionism, which is much more than their parents’ or grandparents’ generation experienced (Perry, 2018).
The problem with perfectionism Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, points out is that students never get to the point that they can say “I’ve done enough” and can stop (Denizet-Lewis, 2017). There is always something more to work on, to be better at or someone to compare themselves to.
This constant drive for perfection doesn’t actually help people get what they want. Instead they end up with a higher risk of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicide and other mental health issues (Perry, 2018; Tinker, 2018).
Thomas Curran, a lead author of the study and a social psychologist, reports that this rise in perfectionism is not only attributed to parents pushing their children to succeed; it is also because of society’s shift in ideology (Tinker, 2018). Many western societies have focused on improving economically and socially for the last 30 years leading to individual people focusing on improving themselves (Perry, 2018). Also included in the list of factors that increased the rate of perfectionism are greater competitiveness, overbearing and anxious parents, higher educational demands, a need to get a well-paying job and social media (Perry, 2018).
Social media not only contributes to perfectionism, but it also influences students’ rates of anxiety. Adolescent and young adult brains have the same needs as adolescents and young adults 30 years ago. Their physiology has a high demand for stimulation and places great urgency on every emotion (Sitter, 2018). But the environment has changed dramatically. Young people have a tough time turning away from social media. This leads to a never-ending list of comparisons between the viewer and those portrayed in the media. It also provides the viewer with a constant barrage of other people’s problems and chaos (Sitter, 2018).
Students who spend more time on social media and platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram report more negative emotions and feelings of hopelessness, whereas those students who spend less time on social media and spend time socializing with friends in person, doing homework or playing a sport report opposite reactions (Stack, 2018).
Students today also find stress over the anxiety of possible terrorist attacks and school shootings—stressors that previous generations didn’t even think about (Denizet-Lewis, 2017). Worry over personal safety is now a big concern for many students.
One way that helps combat anxiety in students is mindfulness (Stack, 2018). Mindfulness is the state of being aware of everything around oneself, both inside and outside the body (Mindfulness, 2016). The National Health Service in the United Kingdom reports that coming to a state of mindfulness helps people enjoy the world around them and to understand themselves better (Mindfulness, 2016). Some ways to incorporate mindfulness are to notice the everyday regularly, try something new, pay attention to and name feelings and thoughts. Some mindful practices include yoga, tai-chi and meditation (Mindfulness, 2016).
Some stressors that students are faced with are out of their control. But taking steps to reduce anxiety, such as limiting time on social media and becoming more mindful will help to reduce student anxiety and promote mental health.
Denizet-Lewis, B. (2017). Why are more American teenagers than ever suffering from severe anxiety? The New York Times Magazine.
Mindfulness. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness/
Perry, P. (2018). Millennials are at higher risk for mental health issues. This may be why. Retrieved from http://bigthink.com/philip-perry/millennials-are-at-higher-risk-for-mental-health-issues-this-may-be-why
Sitter, P. (2018). Schools: Student anxiety, depression on the rise. News Tribune Retrieved from http://www.newstribune.com/news/local/story/2018/jan/07/schools-student-anxiety-depression-on-the-rise/707701/
Stack, B. (2018). Stressed at school: The rise in anxiety among teens. Retrieved from http://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/stressed-at-school-the-rise-in-anxiety-among-teens/mental-healthcare
Tinker, B. (2018). The modern problem with pursuing perfection. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/09/health/perfection-mental-health-study-intl/index.html