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06-17 Academic stress can harm adolescents

Academic stress can harm adolescents

High school is difficult, and every year it seems to get harder. Seven-hour school days are often followed by several hours of homework, sports and extracurricular activities, all of which must be perfected to get into a good college and later find a good career.

The pressure our society places on our teenagers is immense, and it’s no wonder that their mental health suffers.

Here is only a small list of research that highlights the effect of academic stress on adolescents.

  • A survey conducted by Harris Interactive Inc. on behalf of the American Psychological Association investigated 1,950 adults and 1,018 teens and found that teens reported stress levels that were higher than those of the average adult. Many teens were frequently overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent). Teens also reported regularly feeling tired (36 percent) and skipping meals (23 percent) due to stress.
  • Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the vast majority of high school students report receiving insufficient sleep (68.9 percent) whereas a mere 7.6 percent report receiving optimal sleep. Exposure to chronic stressors — such as too little sleep and large amounts of homework — can severely influence a child’s future physical and mental health.
  • Researchers at Northwestern University published a study in the Journal of Family Psychology that found that lack of sleep in high school students is correlated with the amount of homework they receive — in other words, students with more homework sleep less.
  • In 2014, a survey sponsored by the American College Counseling Association (ACCA) found that 94 percent of college counselors reported seeing an increased number of students with severe psychological problems.

The extra pressure we’ve been placing on children and adolescents hasn’t been helping them prepare for the real world — it’s been hindering them. A recently conducted survey found that both university faculty members and employers felt that, compared to 2004, high school graduates have been less prepared to enter college and the workforce.

“Many of the health effects are apparent now, but many more will echo through the lives of our children,” said Richard Scheffler, a health economist at the University of California, Berkley, to The New York Times. “We will all pay the cost of treating them and suffer the loss of their productive contributions.”

Reducing stress, increasing success in adolescents

How can we improve student wellness without sacrificing the quality of their education?

In 2014, a group of researchers published a study in the journal Academic Medicine that focused on improving student health in medical school. Medical students often need to struggle through long hours of lectures, exams and studying to successfully graduate. For this reason, med students are frequently plagued by stress-induced mental illness.

Stuart Slavin, M.D., M.Ed., at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine began his intervention by interviewing students about why they felt anxious and depressed.

“We decided to design and implement curricular changes that would directly address these stressors and would produce a less toxic educational environment,” Slavin said.

The researchers changed the medical school curriculum so that students receive pass or fail grades for certain courses (rather than letter grades). They also allowed students to spend fewer hours in the classroom so that they could have more free time to pursue hobbies and extracurricular activities. Researchers also modified the content of some courses to make them less stressful, and offered students a wellness course to help them develop lifelong strategies to cope with stress.

In the end, depression and anxiety in these medical students significantly decreased.

“The approach is preventive and the model is very simple. We tried to reduce or eliminate unnecessary stressors in the learning environment itself. At the same time, we helped students develop skills in resilience and mindfulness to better manage stress and find some measure of well-being,” explained Slavin.

Adolescents are quite different from medical students, but — like medical students — they spend the majority of their time in a stressful academic environment. Educational policies that provide teenagers with less homework (to allow them more free time and more sleep), flexible grading systems and wellness education classes may keep high school from being so damaging to mental health.

Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego’s adolescent behavioral health program incorporates cutting-edge, evidence-based treatments for mental illnesses including eating disorders, substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. Adolescent patients receive a full continuum of therapeutic care monitored by various licensed health care professionals. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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