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How College and the College Process Impacts the Mental Health of Teens and Young Adults

#CollegeCanWaitButYourMentalHealthCan’t

Background

As a freshman during my first year of high school, the college process seemed like an exciting step towards my future that wouldn’t actually be happening for a while. But now as a second semester senior who has been through this process, I can say that exciting would be one of the last words I’d use to describe it. Hectic? Sure. Stressful? Definitely.

From the very beginning of my senior year when we all began to work on our common app essays and finalizing those college lists, it became apparent that my entire class was under an immense amount of stress. There were people who were somehow getting by on two or three hours of sleep each night, people having breakdowns in the middle of class, or even crying in the bathroom. And the sad part? These aren’t rare occurrences. They happened to the kids the year before us, and the year before them, and probably all the way back into the dark ages when my parents applied too. But in a world where teens and young adults already have high rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, this process only makes things worse.

From my own experience, there have been many a concerned parent and many many exhausted and overwhelmed students who have seen problems with, or wished that this process or the attitude surrounding it was different. So for my catalyst project, I’m exploring how the college application process and college itself affects students’ mental health. And from there, what can we do to change it?

The Problem

In a society where obtaining a college degree can be crucial to long term success in a career, applying to and attending college is a very important time of a young adult’s life. But as college’s standards and costs of tuition rise, and acceptance rates lower, applicants and students find themselves under inordinate amounts of stress that can cause long term they never even considered. Ask any high school senior how they’re feeling in the fall of their final year, and their answers might range from stressed, to overwhelmed, to downright terrified. With the idea that their entire future relies on one decision made at 18, students, parents, and college counselors put an incredible amount of pressure on the quality of applications and their supplemental essays, as well as their academic record and extracurricular activities. So much so, that many students work themselves beyond their breaking point in order to get into their dream school.


“A potentially powerful rite of passage, college admission has the cultural capital with which to shift the tides of isolation, anxiety and disconnection that can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. Few rituals in American society carry more pressure or the threat of shattered self-esteem. “

-Brennan Barnard

But how bad could this really be? Everyone gets stressed sometimes. Right? While technically yes everyone experiences stress and some stress can even be a good motivator, this stress that students are undergoing is incredibly unhealthy and problematic. Being under this consistent stress for the duration of the college process can lead to serious health problems such as the degradation of the immune system, heart problems, as well as the development of chronic anxiety and depression.

Regarding the college process and stress of high school
Marya Gwadz a senior research scientist at NYU said, “These experiences can cause kids to burn out by the time they get to college, or to feel the psychological and physical effects of stress for much of their adult lives. “

The 8 tactics above are helpful to work against burn out in general which is usually caused by stress, but this is kind of a bandaid solution that’s treating the symptoms rather than working to solve the problem. And the problem that needs to be solved is how to lessen the stress of the college process in general.

So how can we de-stress the college process?

  • Ask for help– As a high school senior you should be surrounded by teachers, college counselors, and parents that have already been through this process and can offer helpful insight. Don’t be afraid to use them as resources for guidance or to talk to if you feel things are getting to hard.
  • Manage Time– The earlier you begin to plan this process the better! Beginning your application in advance will allow you more to time to work and hopefully lessen the stress that is writing last minute essays.
  • Balance your life– One of the hardest things to remember during the college process is that not everything revolves around college! You need to make times to do things you love whether it be playing a sport, working on your hobby, or just being with your friends, and balance it with the work you do on your applications.
  • Put your mental health first– Yes applying to college is an important task, but remember to put yourself first. College isn’t going to be an enjoyable experience if you’re broken down and exhausted. It’s okay to take needed breaks or postpone doing thins for the sake of your sanity.

But alas, the problem doesn’t stop there. A lot of people, and students especially, live with a mentality that once you’re into college everything’s going to be fine. Right? Well, not always. The problems that existed before, or that were created because of the stress of applying, still exist and don’t just magically disappear because you got accepted.

Some people brush off what they are experiencing or going through because so many of their classmates are going through the same thing, or because they think it’s only temporary, but this can have disastrous results. 75% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin to develop by age 24, right around the time when people are attending or graduating from college, but if they don’t even recognize there is a problem, or seek treatment or help things will only get worse. And since depression and anxiety already run rampant on high school and college campuses, we definitely don’t want things to get worse.

What to do now?

So now that we’ve addressed the issue, it’s time to do two things. 1: SPREAD THE NEWS! Right now many people are unaware of just how terrible stress and depression can be among high school and college students, so the more people who become aware, the more people can help with part 2: Support the people who are currently struggling with this. Even if you might not understand what someone is going through, be willing to listen or help them get the help they need.

If you haven’t noticed, one of the big ideas that can help with burnout, stress, depression, anxiety, and really anything in life is ASKING FOR HELP AND REACHING OUT TO PEOPLE. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a professional, but just talking with your close friends or family can greatly help your situation. Struggling on your own only makes things worse, and especially at a time when you’re supposed to be “living your best life” it’s important to get help and get things under control.

And remember: #CollegeCanWaitButYourMentalHealthCan’t

Sources

Barnard, Brennan. “College Admission Has The Cultural Capital To Drive Suicide Prevention.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 21 June 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/brennanbarnard/2018/06/20/college-admission-and-suicide-prevention/#b4b43285e0a6.

Hardy, Dr. Cullen, director. College Anxiety and Depression. YouTube, YouTube, 15 Mar. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNlwRGc3LS8.

Leonard, “A Multi-Method Exploratory Study of Stress, Coping, and Substance Use among High School Youth in Private Schools.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 6 July 2015, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01028/full.

Ossola, Alexandra. “High Stress High School .” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 9 Oct. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/high-stress-high-school/409735/.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright.” Time, Time, 27 Oct. 2016, time.com/4547322/american-teens-anxious-depressed-overwhelmed/.

Sura, Jankhna. “Stress of College Applications Negatively Impacts the Health of High School Seniors.” ATHENS ORACLE, 8 Nov. 2017, athensoracle.com/3919/news/stress-of-college-applications-effects-health-of-seniors-across-the-nation/.

“The Stress of the Admissions Process.” Ivy Coach, 21 June 2018, www.ivycoach.com/the-ivy-coach-blog/college-admissions/the-stress-of-the-admissions-process/.

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COMMENTS: 6
  1. April 25, 2019 by Manasi Garg

    Hi Katie,

    As a teenager in high school, this topic is very relevant to me. I love how you presented the information and it was very informative. I was just curious as to what tactics worked specifically for you?

    • May 01, 2019 by Katie Connors

      For me what really worked best (after I realized I needed it) was asking for help. Luckily I had a very supportive college counselor, and when i reached out she was always willing to help me no matter how small something was.

  2. April 29, 2019 by Payton Waters

    Katie, well done with this presentation! I definitely can relate to it as a senior in high school. The college process took a toll on nearly everyone that I know and it was hard to see that happen. I think that your suggestions, especially the one of putting mental health first, were very doable and practical for handling the situation which I believe is important in really sparking change. Great job!

  3. April 30, 2019 by Day.Nuckolls

    Katie, I found your presentation fascinating especially since I just finished college applications and am finishing up my senior year. I can relate to how this process can put profound stress on these students. Great job!

  4. May 01, 2019 by Yoska.Guta

    Hi Katie! I think you did a really good job with this project. It was so interesting to read, especially because I can relate to some of the things you describe since my sister just finished her college applications. It was also nice to see your take on it, as a current student, because it is an issue my school has tried to tackle. It is so unfortunate that 80% of students experience anxiety while 50% experience depressions. This should not be overlooked or seen as “just part of the process”, which is why I think it is so great that you are addressing the issue. You infographics were well placed. And overall, your presentation was really engaging. Thanks!

  5. May 04, 2019 by Daisy.Huang

    Hi Katie! Thanks for addressing this problem, it’s so normalized to be abnormally stressed about college applications and I don’t think many people know that it’s not normal at this point. I understand that you’ve set out some action that we can take to help students out with their mental health, and that’s really important, but I was wondering if there was any way that us students can have an impact on the root problem of college just being so stressful.

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