How Can Schools Combat the Teen Mental Health Crisis?

This is an excerpt from the article, "Under Pressure," which is published in the forthcoming Summer 2024 issue of Independent School magazine.

Since the 1950s, teens have reported a gradual, steady increase in levels of stress and anxiety. Numerous studies have shown that smartphone and social media use starting in 2010 correlate to a sudden, steep rise in teenage depression, self-harm, and suicidality; concurrently, academic distress exacerbates teen mental health problems. 

In its March 2018 white paper, “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity,” Challenge Success reports that high school students say the heavy workload they face causes them the most stress; the second biggest stressor is college admission. 

To whatever set of causes we attribute the growing mental health crisis, the academic stress, sleep deprivation, and anxiety that characterize the hyper-competitive college-prep track compound the desperation, depression, and risk behaviors that are increasingly prevalent among young people in our schools. It’s tempting to blame higher education and college-prep high schools, parents, and even students themselves. Truth is, we’re all complicit, to a greater or lesser extent. 

Educators and school leaders can’t mitigate all the harmful forces driving the adolescent well-being crisis, but we’ve known about the steep decline in student mental health for more than a decade. Yet in many of our schools, the adults responsible for young people in our care perpetuate unreasonable expectations, unnecessary levels of academic stress, and a relentless pursuit of college-prep outcomes that are truly only appropriate for a relatively small fraction of our students. And despite sincere gestures like wellness weeks, intermittent “homework vacations,” and adding counseling staff, we fail to address its root causes, which requires substantially more resolve and courage. 

Can We Redefine Success?

If we believe that ensuring the wellness of young people is one of our most fundamental responsibilities, then success begins with stripping away the unnecessary agents of harm for which we’re responsible.

To the extent parents prioritize their children’s achievements over their wellness, “success” can carry a heavy toll in addition to depression and self-harm in adolescence. As we’ve learned from well-known psychiatrist Ned Hallowell and others who’ve devoted their lives to kids’ well-being, when we condition children to believe that their self-worth depends on their next accomplishment, we condemn them to a lifetime of unfulfillment. That is not success.

What do our schools want for our students as we define our success (and theirs)? What do parents want? What does each institution of higher education want? What can make the confluence of these often conflicting goals especially insidious and a solution challenging is that it will require agreement among all constituents to shift our individual constructs and forge a collective new definition of success.

How Well Do We Differentiate, Really?  

Perhaps there’s some level of hypocrisy when we identify our schools as college preparatory and then decry the stress we place on students in their pursuit of demanding college-prep academics. 

But the problem isn’t the degree to which our programs are academically demanding; instead, it’s that many of us fail to authentically differentiate by student ability level. We mistakenly presume all young people in our schools can handle the same high level of demand and rigor required to reach the prize of selective college admission that we too often dangle in front of them and their parents. 

Yet as we reexamine root causes of unnecessary academic stress in our schools, let’s get away from the notion that “pressure cooker” expectations are necessarily bad for all young people. In fact, there are students in our schools who can and do manage these demands effectively, just as there are students who suffer from taking on too much in order to please their parents, compete with peers, and pursue unrealistic goals. 

The problem is that we allow ourselves to apply the same pressure-cooker expectations to those young people—albeit hardworking, determined, driven young people—who don’t have the capacity to do that level of work without it taking a serious toll on their own well-being. Some kids in our college-prep programs need more difficult demands with greater intensity, and others are damaged by them.

Our task, then, is to properly differentiate. Between healthy and unhealthy rigor. Between healthy stress and unhealthy stress. What is rigorous and energizing for one student may be tortuous or even dangerous for another. 

There are some 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. It is entirely possible for our schools to be college-prep without being college-prep for just 10 or 20 universities. If we could summon the courage and sufficiently buttress our marketing and enrollment to truly differentiate instruction, and be clear with our constituents that not all students will or should go to just a handful of top colleges, we might find a way to accomplish our college preparatory missions while remaining humane places for all the students we serve. 

How Can We Take Action?

One of the most immediate, effective shifts we can enact in our schools to support student wellness is to address what “rigor” means: How can teachers change their academic expectations in ways that will challenge students without burdening them with an unnecessary workload? 

Such a shift depends on more effectively and intentionally individualizing our expectations and differentiating instruction according to the needs and capacity of students, while being clear about realistic outcomes and expectations for parents. 

This is a significant challenge in our schools, although small steps can move us in this direction: adjusting class schedules to enable more time for homework, limiting the number of allowable daily tests and quizzes, embracing no assessments or due dates on Mondays and after holidays, reevaluating the role and value of AP, IB, and honors courses, and so on. Some schools have already taken these and other steps to balance their emphasis on student achievement with concern for student well-being. 

That said, none of our efforts will prevail unless we can enlist parents in this same embrace of balance and wellness for their kids. We need to start by designing and delivering thoughtful and intentional parent education that busts the myths that lead parents to drive their children toward unattainable college aspirations, provides data to ease their misperceptions about less-selective colleges, and helps them understand the serious impacts of the unnecessary stress that such unrealistic expectations—and a childhood focused on obsessive achievement—can have on their children. 

We need to enlist the help of school leaders, college counselors, college and university leaders, and representatives from initiatives focused on student wellness like Making Caring Common and Challenge Success to deliver these messages. Maybe we could create a “College Myths and Misinformation” course and make it mandatory for parents and high school freshmen?

Like independent schools, many colleges and universities are actively working to address student well-being and to acknowledge higher education’s role in propagating the stress of high school college applicants. We applaud these efforts and further challenge them—especially the most exclusive colleges and universities—to identify their goals in chasing ever-increasing selectivity. 

If college and university leaders are prepared to define their purpose in the context of achievement, status, and well-being; to act on the mental health struggles of their own students by extending and institutionalizing wellness initiatives; and to help us limit the stress our high schoolers endure by reenvisioning their recruitment and marketing practices, we are at the threshold of a powerful antidote to school-related adolescent mental illness.

John Gulla

John Gulla is executive director of the Edward E. Ford Foundation.

Olaf Jorgenson

Olaf Jorgenson is head of school at Almaden Country Day School in San Jose, California.