Carefree youth is an oxymoron. The pressures from school are overwhelming, resulting in crippling anxiety for many students. America’s teens, in fact, are frequently more stressed than their parents, according to a recent NBC News survey. Starting from a young age, students believe that they cannot sway from perfect grades and excellent standardized test scores if they wish to be admitted into their dream college.
The result is unsettling: The United States has become the most anxious nation in the world, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
A recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that nearly half of all teens said they were stressed by school pressures. In most cases, this stress comes from academics, not social issues or bullying.
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NIMH estimates that 25 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds will experience an anxiety disorder, which is a twentyfold increase over the past 30 years. For some kids, the stress is so overwhelming that students “can’t even get themselves into the school building each day,” says Ann Lagges, a child psychologist and chief of the Mood Disorders Clinic at Indiana University.
It’s not uncommon for a student to take several “mental health” days off from school each year.
Students are getting more anxious every decade. In fact, rates of anxiety among children and adolescents are much higher now than they were during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, according to a report in Psychology Today. Robert Leahy, a psychologist at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, says, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.” While the diagnostic criteria have not changed, our culture has.
Social values have changed over the years as the quest for materialism has trumped personal relationships. Says psychologist Jean Twenge, author of the book “Generation Me,” “We have become a culture that focuses more on material things and less on relationships.”
This shift away from intrinsic goals toward extrinsic goals correlates to the youth anxiety epidemic. As Twinge says, “As American culture has increasingly valued extrinsic and self-centered goals such as money and status, while increasingly devaluing community, affiliation, and finding meaning in life, the mental health of American youth has suffered.”
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As a result, Generation Z is comprised of millions of high school and college students who struggle with anxiety. By the time a young person reaches his junior year in high school, he has likely become more than familiar with web-based software such as Naviance. It provides scattergrams detailing the likelihood of acceptance into one’s dream college based on that student’s grade point average and standardized test scores compared to previous applicants from that high school.
Generation Z often spends more time studying and less time socializing with friends than previous generations, becoming emotionally isolated and non-resilient in the process, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Unrealistic expectations are damaging to young people. Millions of adolescents have been raised to believe that they can do anything; however, when their innate skill does not match up with their goals, extreme disappointment is the end result. This has led to a phenomenon known as identity disorientation, in which a student loses himself at college because his parents are no longer there to reinforce the identify that they have helped create for him, as noted in Psych Central.
Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol to escape from such emotional discomfort, many students are taking even more drastic action. In the past 15 years, suicide rates have tripled at colleges across the country, according to the American College Health Association.
While the demand for campus counseling is growing, a lack of funding for mental health resources has blocked many students. Forty percent of students looking for help from campus counselors were forced to wait at least five days for an appointment, according to a recent survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Such waiting time can result in tragic consequences.
In the past 15 years, suicide rates have tripled at colleges across the country, according to the American College Health Association.
As detailed by the APA, more than 30 percent of students who seek services for mental health issues report they have considered attempting suicide at some point in their lives, up from about 24 percent in 2010.
The results of a 2014 study by the National College Health Assessment further illuminates the issue: Fifty-five percent of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, while 87 percent reported feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities. Dori Hutchinson, director of services at Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, noted, “We parent differently and we protect our kids from a lot of normal disappointments in the name of getting a leg up. They get to college and their parents aren’t here to do that anymore. There are kids who can’t decide what to choose to eat. That creates anxiety.”
To help ensure the safety of young people, parents need to assist their children in managing their anxiety. Parents need to work with the child to establish realistic goals.
Parents also need to work with professional mental health counselors to allow that child to understand that his mental health is more important than any grade. Parents should model ways to effectively deal with stress. Rather than pretend that the world outside of school is stress-free, parents need to demonstrate how to deal with stress in a healthy manner.
No one deserves to be crippled by anxiety — especially students.
Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years on every aspect of the college admissions process, including tutoring students for SAT and ACT tests and selecting schools and majors.