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

“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: 

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

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.  

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.  

Teens struggling with depression talk about how busy their schedule is at school.

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.   

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.  

Teen with slipping grades wonders if school is making her depression worse.

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. 

“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.  

*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! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.