Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ruth C White Ph.D.
Ruth C White Ph.D.

The Mental Health Costs of Academic Success

Medication and graduation

Note: This was first posted on May 22, 2012 and has been slightly edited.

As a college professor, I see a lot of students in my office and many of these students come in to talk when things get difficult. Like most campuses in the USA, our campus has a counseling center and though I am also a social worker, that is not the hat I wear when I am their instructor.

Taking medication to get through education

Recently I ran into an ex-student of mine who confided in me that grad school was so stressful, that despite her best efforts, she had to turn to anti-depressants to survive the demands of her program. She was in nursing school - a notably challengng program. And she was not alone. She confided that in doing research on her options, she had asked her peers what their favorite anti-depressant was, only to be amazed at how many of them had cycled through more than one.

Learning is stressful and the modern-day education stakes are high because not only does a future ride on performance but so do the bank accounts of parents and adult students. The need for anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications has trickled down from corporate executives to children in pressure-cooker elementary schools because failure is not only not an option but perfection is often the goal: academic performance is viewed by many as the single arbiter of one's life trajectory.

Anxiety and depression across generations

There is evidence that there were not as many students who were stressed out when I was in school. In the Jamaica of my childhood, your place in the class was posted outside homeroom for the whole world to see and national examination results were published in the newspaper. And graduate school at UC Berkeley and McGill was challenging, but as far as I know, popping pills was not a coping mechanism for my peers. And it seems I am right.

In Generational Changes and their Impact in the Classroom: Teaching Generation Me, a 2008 paper piblished in Medical Education, which was of a meta-analysis of studies across decades that used the Minnessota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), Jean Twenge of San Diego State University found that anxiety and depression had increased across generations,
with more students than ever experiencing mental health problems while in school. At the same time she noted that suicide rates in youth aged 15-24 years have decreased from the early 1990's to the mid-2000's, and suggested that this may be due to an increase in the use of anti-depressants.

Education as cause or effect

Though the USA does not have the high pressure system of Japan or Korea that can lead to suicide
and other problematic behaviors, we are not the only 'Western' nation to face these issues, and perhaps education is the outlet for the stress from other areas of life such as relationships with friends, family and self. In 2008, The Independent, a British newspaper, reported that the

Association of Teachers and Lecturers were calling for an independent Royal Commission to investigate anxiety among children and cited social dysfunction, family breakdown, academic, social and peer pressure among some of their concerns with regard to the mental health of children.

Future expectations

The discussion on the cost and outcomes of education, STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and online education consumes academia and reaches down into elementary and high school, it is time to consider what we expect of our children and ourselves in the pursuit of learning. Hovering parents and America seeking more rigorous standards we must examine the expectations we have for our children and ourselves as parents. Mental illness should not be the price of an education or the 'perfect life'.

About the Author
Ruth C White Ph.D.

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S.W., is a stress management expert, diversity consultant, and mental health advocate, and author of The Stress Management Workbook and the forthcoming Everyday Stress Relief.

More from Ruth C White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Ruth C White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today