Ask a Therapist: Does Going to School Cause Depression or Make It Worse? (2023)

“My child always seems more down during the school year. Does school cause teen depression or make it worse?”

As you’ve likely heard, the coronavirus pandemic took a toll on teens’ mental health. Recent research published in JAMA Pediatrics found that during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 in 4 adolescents struggled with depression, and 1 in 5 suffered from anxiety. Depression in schools is all too real.

But even before a life of lockdowns, restrictions, and upended plans, middle school and high school teens in America were in the midst of a mental health crisis. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of a 2017 survey, the number of teens who had recently experienced depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017. 

These trends can give the parents of today’s teens cause for concern, especially as in-person learning becomes the norm again. If you’re worried about how the pressure of academic life affects your teen, we’re here to help you understand:

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  • Does school cause depression in teens?
  • How do you know if your teen is struggling with depression?
  • What can you do to help? 

Table of contents

  • Does School Cause Teen Depression?
    • Why teens struggle under stress
      • Challenging times in life
      • Teenage brains still developing
      • Chronic stress
  • How School Contributes To Mental Health Issues
    • Overscheduling
    • Academic pressure
  • How Do You Know If Your Teen Is Struggling With Depression?
    • Changes in mood and behavior
    • Loss of interest in activities or slipping grades
  • What Can You Do To Help?
    • Be empathetic and ask intentional questions
    • Put down your phone
    • Seek help from a mental health professional

Does School Cause Teen Depression?

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. teens ages 13-17, academics tops the list of pressures teens face, with 61% saying they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has similar findings, citing school demands and frustration as a source of stress for teens. 

Scientists and mental health professionals alike have long suspected a link between chronic stress and mental health conditions like depression. For example, according to a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist, while mental health conditions have many possible causes, chronic stressful life situations can increase someone’s risk of developing depression. 

Research demonstrates how this risk may be especially strong for teens. 

Why teens struggle under stress

Challenging times in life

“Teenage years are the prime time for kids to learn who they are and how to manage what they’re experiencing in safe and healthy ways,” said Amber Engelbrecht, LMSW, a clinical therapist at Calo Programs who works with preteens and teens between ages 9 and 17. “This can, however, prove challenging for some if they’re under a lot of pressure.”

Teenage brains still developing

Our children’s brains are at a unique stage of development during these formative years — and that makes them more vulnerable to stress. This can be especially true during the pandemic, according to research published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. It shared that the challenges experienced during COVID-19, such as school closures and enforced social distancing, were expected to negatively affect mental health in youth — especially adolescents, who are already at risk for experiencing emotional difficulties.

Chronic stress

The potential impact goes beyond that as well. Ongoing overwhelming/chronic stress can cause physical changes in teens’ developing brains, which can increase their risk for developing mental disorders, according to a review of research in the journal Chronic Stress. 

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While there are other significant factors at play — like a family history of depression or unstable home life — this research reinforces that teens overwhelmed by stress are at a greater risk for developing depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other mental illnesses. 

How School Contributes To Mental Health Issues

While school offers many benefits to adolescents, such as connecting with peers, overscheduling and academic pressure can be a significant source of stress, contributing to mental health issues including teen depression. 

Ask a Therapist: Does Going to School Cause Depression or Make It Worse? (1)

Overscheduling

Whether it’s adding extracurriculars for college applications, trying to measure up to their peers, or experiencing the pressure of parental expectations, young people today are often stretched too thin. 

“Even as adults, we often don’t get enough sleep and schedule things back to back — not spending enough time on self-care — and that’s absolutely going to have a negative effect,” Engelbrecht said. “We need to apply that same line of thinking to teens. Overscheduling and the anxiety that results from that will have a negative impact on them as well.” 

A recent Child Mind Institute report found that anxiety affects 30% of children and adolescents at some point. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety experts caution that untreated anxiety puts kids at a greater risk of depression, behavior problems, and substance abuse as well as suicide* attempts later in life. 

Academic pressure

Even if teens, including busy high school students, feel their schedules are under control, academic demands play a major role in their stress levels. A recent review of research on stress, published in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, found that on average for students ages 15 to 16:

  • 66% felt stress about poor grades.
  • 55% felt very anxious about taking a test — even when they were well prepared.
  • 37% felt very tense when studying, with girls feeling greater anxiety than boys.

While stress is a necessary and normal part of life, ongoing stress can become overwhelming. For example, the research review showed that ongoing stress over education had a negative impact in several areas, including school performance, sleep quality, and mental health and substance use outcomes.  

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How Do You Know If Your Teen Is Struggling With Depression?

Changes in mood and behavior

Depression in teens can look a bit different than it does in adults. Symptoms can include:

  • Mood swings.
  • Irritability.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Substance use.
  • Isolation.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Rebelliousness. 

Loss of interest in activities or slipping grades

That’s why Engelbrecht said to look out for any abnormal change, like if your teen experiences a loss of interest in an activity or starts slipping in their academics. She also noted that sometimes kids struggling with depression perform great in school and their extracurriculars while acting out more at home.

“Essentially, it’s because at school they’re holding it all together and doing their best,” she said. Then at home, parents see an increase in behavioral issues as kids release the emotions they’re suppressing at school. 

Ask a Therapist: Does Going to School Cause Depression or Make It Worse? (2)

What Can You Do To Help?

So, how can you help your teen build and maintain their mental health during the school year? 

Be empathetic and ask intentional questions

“I think the biggest thing is creating an environment where empathy and acceptance are always provided,” Engelbrecht said. 

This means creating a safe space at home where your kids can share their struggles, whether they’ve had a bad day or are facing an ongoing issue.

She also recommended asking more intentional questions when talking to teens.

(Video) What depression can look like in school

“We get into these modes where questions — like ‘How was your day?’ — become a habit, like an automatic response when our kids walk through the door,” Engelbrecht explained.

By being more intentional about these otherwise habitual questions, you signal to your teen that their feelings are valid and you genuinely want to understand their successes and struggles alike. 

Engelbrecht suggested asking specific questions that demonstrate your interest and care, like “What was something good about your day?” or “What was something that was difficult for you today?” 

Put down your phone

“Giving our kids our full, 100%, undivided attention goes a long way,” Engelbrecht said. 

She explained how kids she works with often say they don’t feel people, including family members, genuinely care about them or pay attention to them — all because those people are talking to them while looking at their phone. 

Seek help from a mental health professional

Even subtle symptoms of depression in teens can be masking something more serious: suicidal thoughts. According to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, at least 50% of parents were unaware their adolescents were thinking about suicide. 

That’s why if you’re seeing signs of depression and are worried about your teen’s mental health, don’t hesitate to bring in professional help. Engelbrecht said this support could range from weekly appointments with a therapist or school counselor to inpatient residential care, depending on the severity of your child’s behavior and safety risk. 

(Video) How does a therapist cope with depression #depression #mentalhealth #crying #depressed #shorts

*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your teen is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 ─ the Crisis Text Line ─ from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

FAQs

Can school make you more depressed? ›

School is usually not the main cause of depression. However, it can be a factor in causing or increasing teen depression due to the various stressors that occur in school, including bullying, academic pressure, and challenging peer relationships.

Does school worsen mental health? ›

While school alone does not cause mental illness among youth, it is important for parents to recognize that certain school-related factors could trigger the onset of a mental health problem. For example, academic stress is a leading cause of mental health struggles in students.

Do people with depression struggle with school? ›

Symptoms of depression and anxiety can include:

Difficulty with schoolwork. Loss of interest in activities, such as clubs, sports or other social commitments. Changes in eating or sleeping patterns. Emotional outbursts, such as tearfulness or anger.

Does school increase anxiety and depression? ›

While school offers many benefits to adolescents, such as connecting with peers, overscheduling and academic pressure can be a significant source of stress, contributing to mental health issues including teen depression.

How do depressed people act at school? ›

Students with depression may: seem sad or irritable more often than not. seem tired, lack energy, give up easily. put little effort into schoolwork.

Do teachers notice if a student is depressed? ›

Some physiological symptoms of depression can be easier for a teacher to notice. Students that repeatedly avoid eating lunch or a mid-day snack are noticed by a teacher. Students that fall asleep in their seat or lag behind the other students when lining up for a transition are made obvious.

Should I leave school for my mental health? ›

When should I consider a Leave of Absence? You may consider a Leave of Absence if: Your mental health is disrupting your ability to participate in academic and campus life, even with supports and accommodations. You feel you are in crisis or that your level of distress is becoming intolerable.

Is school more important or my mental health? ›

Your accomplishments will likely be even sweeter when you are healthy enough to enjoy them. Grades and reaching goals have their place, but your mental health is always more important than anything else.

Do students with better mental health do better in school? ›

In addition to enjoying a healthier student body that is more engaged in school life, young people who receive appropriate mental health supports have improved academic achievement, are more likely to graduate, and are more likely to attend and successfully complete college.

What is the leading cause of depression in students? ›

Many factors increase the risk of developing or triggering teen depression, including: Having issues that negatively impact self-esteem, such as obesity, peer problems, long-term bullying or academic problems. Having been the victim or witness of violence, such as physical or sexual abuse.

Is it normal to cry because of school? ›

Although crying is a perfectly normal human emotion that we all experience sometimes, it can be embarrassing to cry at school. Fortunately, there are a number of tips and tricks that can help you to hide your tears at school if you are having a rough day but don't want anyone else to know about it.

What are 3 ways to help improve symptoms of depression? ›

5 Ways to Help Yourself Through Depression
  • Exercise. Take a 15- to 30-minute brisk walk every day. ...
  • Eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. Some people with depression don't feel much like eating. ...
  • Express yourself. ...
  • Don't dwell on problems. ...
  • Notice good things.

Does school worsen anxiety? ›

School can be a source of anxiety for many kids and young adults. It's a setting filled with expectations to succeed, large groups of people, opportunities for bullying, and more. School anxiety can cause students of all ages to feel overwhelmed at the thought of stepping foot on campus.

Is anxiety a reason to not go to school? ›

Generally, children should only stay home from school for fever (at least 100.4° F), vomiting, or a few other reasons. It's important for anxious children and teens to learn that they can persevere and do what they need to do even when experiencing physical anxiety, just as adults must in their own jobs.

Why does school give me so much anxiety? ›

For some children, the fear and worry associated with school anxiety are related to a specific cause, such as being bullied or having a bad experience at school. For others, the anxiety may be more general and related to social or performance anxiety.

What mental illness does school cause? ›

Academic stress and its impact on mental health is a well-researched topic. Research shows that academic stress leads to less well-being and an increased likelihood of developing anxiety or depression. Additionally, students who have academic stress tend to do poorly in school.

Can grades cause depression? ›

Rates of anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation have spiked dramatically, and academic stress tied to grades is a leading cause of this escalation.

Is depression a medical reason to miss school? ›

States like Washington and California recognize mental health as a legitimate reason to miss a day of school.

Can depression be used as an excuse for school? ›

California is among twelve states that now allow students to take “mental health days” as excused absences, as reported by Today. While some adults worry that teens will abuse the policy, mental health experts are encouraged by the step forward and stress that the benefits outweigh the risk of misuse. Dr.

How do you tell if a student is struggling mentally? ›

Signs and Symptoms of Distress in Students
  1. Social isolation, withdrawal, lethargy.
  2. Inability to focus on a specific topic in a conversation or activity.
  3. Disorganized thinking and speech, feelings that are inappropriate to the situation, lack of affect, or other evidence that student is “out of touch with reality”

Why do high schoolers get depressed? ›

Many factors increase the risk of developing or triggering teen depression, including: Having issues that negatively impact self-esteem, such as obesity, peer problems, long-term bullying or academic problems. Having been the victim or witness of violence, such as physical or sexual abuse.

Can you get PTSD from school? ›

In fact, one study examining mental health in college students found experiencing bullying to be the strongest predictor of developing PTSD symptoms. This surpassed physical abuse, neglect, and exposure to community violence.

Videos

1. Is School Slowly Destroying Your Brain?
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2. Depression: A Student's Perspective
(Demystifying Medicine McMaster)
3. YOU ARE NOT DEPRESSED, STOP IT! (2023)
(Prince Ea)
4. Case study clinical example CBT: First session with a client with symptoms of depression (CBT model)
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5. People With Anxiety & Depression Share Advice For Anyone Who's Struggling | Soul Stories
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6. What is depression? - Helen M. Farrell
(TED-Ed)
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