As a nurse and wellness coordinator at an all-girls preparatory school in Richmond, Va., I have a front-row seat to the stress our students go through to build perfect college résumés. I see it in the classrooms, hear it in the cafeteria and now, during COVID, discuss it with them over Zoom. All around me, students are frequently overwhelmed and exhausted. I’ve known star athletes, straight-A scholars and class leaders -- kids accepted by their first-choice college -- who struggle, too often silently, with debilitating anxiety and depression.
That is why the onus is on colleges themselves to focus on high school mental health. Each college or university must require incoming students to take for-credit mental health courses in high school and make it a mandatory part of the admissions process. Our children's lives are at stake, and without corrective measures, teen mental health will continue to suffer, and more and more of them will die needlessly each year.
High schools are doing their best to prioritize mental health, but we’re fighting a losing battle unless colleges get involved. Secondary schools can’t solve the problem when it’s colleges that run the show. Since colleges dictate what is required and rewarded, without mental health classes on the list, we’ll never have an equitable and reliable way to package the amount of information needed to safeguard the psyche of our Gen Z youth.
Over the last decade, the number of teens with debilitating anxiety and depression has risen nationwide, with 17 percent of youth aged 6 to 17 experiencing psychiatric illness. These mental health concerns can follow students to college, where 1,000 students end their lives each year, making suicide the second most common cause of death among college students. The National College Health Assessment spring 2019 Executive Summary reported that in the previous 12 months, 66 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, 45 percent felt so depressed it was difficult to function and 13 percent had seriously considered suicide.
Currently some states require health education, yet mental health mandates are highly variable -- if they even exist. But like math and English, mental health education should be an essential program of study. Teens must be equipped to recognize symptoms of anxiety and depression, understand the warning signs of suicide, know how to get help, and learn self-care techniques to manage stress and be happy. Without mental health fitness being factored into a student's transcripts the way science or music might be, colleges will continue to get precocious students with psychiatric problems. Even if a young person isn’t college-bound, such classes are fundamental. Yet high school requirements won’t change until colleges insist on it.
Furthermore, for students to take such classes seriously, they must get academic credit, and the grade has to matter. That would ensure students know they are valued beyond their résumé of achievements. I saw this firsthand when I taught high school health. Despite its importance, few colleges require this class, so it has no impact on a student’s grade point average. With little at stake gradewise, students regularly asked to skip my class to work on an honors assignment or study for a midterm.
But what’s an A in physics if you wind up in an abusive relationship, dependent on drugs or suicidal? I’d often discover students furtively studying for the next period’s exam behind their computer screens during class. I learned not to take this personally; they’d been groomed to focus on grades above all else. The message our education system sends young people is hopelessly wrong.
The schedule of a high-school student who is building a competitive college résumé is packed with Advanced Placement courses, after-school sports, band practices, club meetings, drama rehearsals, SAT prep and a mountain of homework that keeps them up late at night. When the alarm rings at dawn, they repeat the cycle. The grind leaves little time for hanging out with friends and the carefree fun that’s an essential ingredient of growing up happy. This is the schedule that colleges reward. And it’s not sustainable.
Secondary schools want solutions. Think tanks like EAB, an educational advisory board, compiled "Tackling the Student Stress Dilemma," a 2017 manual that weighed in at 71 pages. More recently, the National Association of Independent Schools dedicated its fall 2020 magazine issue to health and well-being. Both sources recommended that secondary schools “shift the culture from overwork to self-care” and weave healthy coping skills throughout existing programming.
Nice ideas, sure. But they won’t solve the fundamental problem. For years, I’ve squeezed mindfulness lessons and stress reduction into students’ jam-packed schedules, and I’m here to tell you, they’re not the answer. We can’t win the fight to save teens this way, no matter how supportive the school culture -- especially when co-curricular programs have the potential to become checklists for schools, without reaching our youth in a way that makes a significant difference. Too often, students don’t take meaningful information seriously when it's presented outside an academic class, or such sessions become the time when parents schedule dental appointments.
Basically, it’s a supply and demand issue. As long as colleges seek applicants who look good on paper but lack the skills to manage their emotional health, they’ll continue to admit young people who can code, speak Mandarin and ace honors classes but may often crumble when faced with real-life disappointments.
Unfortunately, until our youth understand how to take care of their mental health, the number of teens affected by debilitating anxiety, depression and related suicide will continue to climb. The current system greatly hurts colleges, some of which have spent millions to beef up campus mental health support. In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, Gary D. Glass presents an excellent case for shifting from a counseling-centered paradigm to broader mental health education in colleges when it comes to psychiatric care. But wouldn’t his recommendations make the most sense if they were instead applied at the high school level -- especially since earlier education could make a greater and desperately needed impact? Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, with the majority of cases going undetected and untreated. Whether we’re talking about drunk driving, teen pregnancy or psychiatric concerns among adolescents, early intervention is key.
Of note, the most popular class in Yale University’s history was Laurie Santos’s elective on well-being. When it debuted in 2018, close to a quarter of the university’s undergraduates enrolled, proving that young people do, in fact, want to know about wellness. Why should they have to wait until college for course credit on how to be well?
At this point in our culture, with social media and the internet accelerating the pace of life, decreasing in-person relationships, and amplifying the supposed success of the person next door, if colleges required such dedicated courses, it might only level the numbers of students with mental health issues. But what other option do we have to reach young people en masse? The current system is woefully inadequate, made worse by the pandemic.
Whether learning virtually, in person or through a hybrid model, it’s been a year of educational challenges for America’s adolescents, alongside the erasure of sports, musicals and proms. However hopeful we feel about COVID-19 vaccinations, they won’t solve the teen mental health crisis.
Colleges, are you listening?