Students of all ages, from elementary to graduate school, can undergo a tremendous amount of stress while earning their education. Pressures to perform and excel academically can quickly become overwhelming. And while each stage of life brings about different challenges, the impact of school-related stress on a student’s mental health is pretty universal.
Emotional health struggles can feel like massive stumbling blocks to succeeding in school. You're not alone if you or someone you care about is struggling and believes they may be experiencing a mental health condition. One out of every six U.S. youth (ages 6-17) experiences a mental health disorder every year.1 College-aged student statistics are even more dire, with 44% of students reporting symptoms of depression alone.2 Our guide explores students' most common mental and emotional health conditions, along with resources to find the help you or your loved ones need.
Research shows that across the board, students of all ages experience very similar mental health issues. We’ve broken down the most common conditions among students, including statistics and symptoms to watch for.
Anxiety is prevalent among today’s youth; the CDC reports 9.4% of children between the ages of 3-17 are diagnosed with anxiety — and that number is steadily increasing.3 Some level of fear and worry is typical among young people, but when these concerns begin to interfere with school or home life, it may speak to the presence of a clinical disorder. Research has also found that college students experience even greater anxiety than children or teens. The 2022-2023 Healthy Minds study revealed that 36% of college students experience anxiety symptoms.4
Anxiety doesn’t always look the same for everyone, and it can take different forms depending on your circumstances. For students, this may look like separation anxiety, test anxiety, or even fear of school. It’s also common for anxiety disorders to manifest with physical symptoms. Below, we take a look at the three most common types of anxiety disorders that children and young people experience.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a persistent feeling of anxiety or dread across various situations or relationships. People experiencing GAD are affected by more than the occasional worry from stressful life events. GAD can make you feel restless, irritable, and fatigued. It can also greatly impact your sleep habits and cause headaches or stomach aches that don’t have any other explainable cause. Generalized anxiety disorder can be frustrating because you may feel unable to control your excessive worry.5
Social anxiety disorder is where everyday interactions cause significant anxiety or self-consciousness out of fear of being judged by others. This overwhelming fear and anxiety can lead you to avoid most social situations — including school. The fear of talking to strangers, your peers, or doing something embarrassing can become so paralyzing that avoidance feels like the only solution. Social anxiety can also cause physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat, trembling, sweating, dizziness, difficulty making eye contact, or an upset stomach.6
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience regular, recurring panic attacks. These attacks often happen without warning or any specific trigger and can be debilitating. People with panic disorder often fear another distressing panic attack occurring, which leads to additional stress and anxiety. Symptoms of a panic attack include difficulty breathing, chest pain, racing heart, nausea, sweating, and numbness or tingling in your fingers or toes. Panic attacks can also cause feelings of depersonalization, terror, or loss of control.7
Specific phobia is a condition characterized by irrational fear and anxiety that has a singular focus, as the name implies; a person will experience significant anxiety about an object, environmental characteristic or situation that poses little or no actual risk to them. What terrifies people varies tremendously — for instance, a fear of spiders, open or closed spaces, heights, the sight of blood, or countless others. Data suggests that close to 13% of people experience this disorder at some point as adults, and over 19% of people ages 13-18 cope with it. Specific phobia can range in severity from mild to serious, can significantly disrupt a person’s social or professional life, and can last an entire lifetime if unaddressed.
Changing moods and passing feelings of sadness or hopelessness are a normal part of life. However, when these feelings are persistent and accompany other changes in behavior or demeanor, sometimes it may be indicative of a mood disorder. Major depressive and bipolar disorder are the two most common mood disorders in young people. The CDC reports that 4.4% of children aged 3-17 are diagnosed with depression.3
Major depressive disorder (also called clinical depression) is diagnosed when someone experiences a period of two weeks or more with a depressed mood or loss of interest in activities that once brought joy. A depressive episode can include many symptoms, including, but not limited to, sadness, hopelessness, angry outbursts, lack of energy, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, and suicidal ideation.8
In children and teens, the symptoms of depression can look like those of adults but may also include some differences. Sometimes depression in younger people appears as clinginess, refusing to go to school, feeling misunderstood, complaints of stomach issues or headaches, avoiding friends, or poor academic performance.
Bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) is a mental health condition characterized by extreme shifts in mood and energy, cycling between manic (or hypomanic) and depressive episodes.9 During a manic episode, someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder may feel energized, euphoric, or irritable. Then, in a depressive cycle, they may feel hopeless, sad, or indifferent to things that once brought pleasure or joy.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder affects over 6 million children in the U.S. and an estimated 140-366 million adults worldwide.10 44 Symptoms usually begin to appear between ages three and six, and they can often impact individuals throughout their entire life.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that may affect your ability to concentrate, focus, manage time, complete tasks, or sit still.11 These symptoms can be incredibly tough for students of all ages to manage. For younger children, ADHD characteristics may be misinterpreted as them “acting out.” And the presentation of ADHD varies between boys and girls, with the former often presenting with more “stereotypical” hyperactive symptoms and the latter tending towards inattentive symptoms (teachers may say a female student is forgetful or “spacey”).45
ADHD can be managed through medication or behavior treatment (or both), which can greatly benefit students of all ages. However, younger students may benefit from extra guidance from parents and teachers to learn effective coping strategies.
College students with ADHD have unique challenges from their peers, which can be extra stressful without the presence of parental support.12 These students often have to learn to self-advocate, including seeking accommodations for testing and other instructional needs.
Thousands of students every year, regardless of age or gender, struggle with an eating disorder. These conditions revolve around an unhealthy relationship with food; however, research suggests the underlying cause of eating disorders is the desire for a sense of control.46 This need for control while navigating stress, anxiety, or poor body image can manifest in behaviors like food restriction, binging, purging, and compulsive exercise.
The teen years and young adulthood are the most common ages for developing an eating disorder, with females having the highest rate of occurrence.13 Eating disorders can have a negative impact on academic performance due to the nutritional and mental health consequences. Students struggling with these conditions often have trouble concentrating and can appear irritable, tired, and socially withdrawn.14
Anorexia involves going to extremes to control your body weight, with an intense fear of weight gain.15 Anorexic behaviors can include severely cutting calories, restricting certain foods, and extreme exercise to burn calories. Anorexia can be life-threatening. In fact, young people between the ages of 15-24 with anorexia have a 10 times greater risk of death compared to their peers.16 Some symptoms include fatigue, dry hair, hair loss, low heart rate, dizziness, muscle loss, insomnia, and constipation.
Bulimia is defined by cycles of binging on food followed by purging. A binge can be defined as consuming a very large portion of food in a short amount of time coupled with feeling unable to stop. This, in turn, transitions to feelings of immense guilt or fear of weight gain, triggering a purge. While purging is often synonymous with vomiting, those with bulimia may use other methods to purge. This includes using laxatives, weight loss supplements, extreme exercise, or fasting for a period of time. Bulimia can cause a number of health issues in addition to the psychological impact; gum disease, tooth decay, heart problems, and dehydration are all certain risks when dealing with bulimia.17
People suffering from binge eating disorder typically consume a large amount of food at a time and feel as though they are unable to control themselves. However, they do not purge like those with bulimia. Individuals with binge eating disorder come in all different body sizes. Eating when you are already full, eating secretly or shamefully, or consistently eating until you are uncomfortably full are all binge-eating behaviors. Similar to other eating disorders, those with this condition often experience feelings of shame or guilt for their behavior.18
Substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand with other mental health conditions since alcohol and illicit drugs can be used as a means of coping with difficult symptoms. It may come as no surprise that college students use more alcohol and illicit drugs than any other population group. Research reports that among full-time college students surveyed, 39% reported binge drinking in the last month.19 Higher education students are also more likely to obtain and use prescription stimulants, like Adderall, for enhanced concentration and focus.19
High school students most commonly report using alcohol, nicotine vaping, and cannabis.20 However, there has been an alarming increase in the number of fentanyl-related deaths in teens in recent years; fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid similar to morphine.21
Signs of substance use can include:22
A mental health crisis refers to a heightened situation where someone is at an acute risk of hurting themselves or others. It can also be a time when someone is unable to take care of themselves. These crises can be terrifying and confusing. Sometimes, it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what’s wrong. Every condition has its own symptoms, but often these behaviors overlap. For example, the CDC reports that for three out of every four children with depression, 73.8% also experience anxiety.3 If you believe you or someone you care about may be struggling with their mental health, here are some common warning signs:23
Many children face strict expectations for behavior while at school during the day, and some parents find that their kids come home in the afternoons and “fall apart” or act out. Holding in their emotions all day can lead to what seems like distressing behavior at home, but, in reality, young children are expressing their feelings in a place where they feel it's safe to do so. However, persistent behavior issues can signify a larger problem, and it may be time to seek professional help.
Parents of young children face the incredibly important job of being their best advocate. And sometimes, kids with emotional or behavioral challenges struggle academically. If your child is showing symptoms or has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, there are things you can do to work with your school to make accommodations for your student.
One of the best ways to help your child is to keep in touch with their teacher and other school administration regularly. Open communication about observed behaviors, strengths, challenges, and history is critical to keeping everyone on the same page. You may feel that your child needs to be evaluated for an official diagnosis. A comprehensive evaluation can be very helpful in that it lays the groundwork for any accommodation plans that might benefit your child in school. Individual Education Plans (IEP) and Section 504 plans are both federal regulations that protect the rights of children with disabilities.24 25
Lastly, it’s important for kids to feel like they can come to their parents to discuss what’s bothering them. Taking the stigma away from mental health struggles is a great place to start. The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends having frequent conversations with your child about what is going on. They offer the following tips for this dialogue:26
An open dialogue encourages children to reach out when they need it most.
In today’s culture, teens are bombarded with demanding schedules — both academically and, often, socially. Coupling this with the significant changes they are undergoing developmentally, it’s easy to see how teenage students can become overwhelmed, especially since academic pressures and navigating the social aspects of school can be tough on their own.
If you’re feeling intense emotions or like things are spiraling out of your control, you may need to seek help. While it’s tempting to keep quiet or hope things simmer down, staying silent can exacerbate feelings of loneliness or despair. But know that you aren’t alone; a survey performed by the CDC reports that 29% of students experienced poor mental health in 2021.27
Talking to someone can be one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. The first step is to reach out to your parents, guardians, or another trusted adult. Then, make a plan or even take some notes before you sit down to talk so you don’t forget anything important. If you feel overwhelmed, know it’s okay to stop, take a deep breath, and regroup before continuing the conversation. If you are not able to find support at home, don’t give up! Consider contacting another family member, close family friend, or school counselor to talk. There are also resources at the bottom of this guide that can offer immediate help.
For parents of teens, you may feel unsure of how to talk to your child when it appears they are struggling with their mental health. It’s important to stay patient and calm if they approach you with concerns. You may need to ask them directly about symptoms you’ve noticed. Communicating with your teen in an open, accepting manner will help them to see you’re there for support. Try approaching them with statements starting with “I noticed.” For example: “I noticed you seem to be more down lately.” Using this method will feel less like an interrogation to your teen.
Many college students experience unique stress as they branch out independently and often live away from home for the first time while attending school. These young people are learning to function as adults while juggling expectations and pressures to perform well academically. Students may be navigating a new environment and trying to find a sense of belonging while also establishing friendships; this natural need for connection and camaraderie is an important part of settling into college life.
The ever-increasing cost of higher education also adds stressors; managing a job to pay for tuition and living expenses alongside a difficult college courseload can quickly pile on overwhelming feelings. And some students might even be experiencing the pressure of keeping their grades up to maintain a scholarship. In addition to financial concerns, dreams for the future can be exciting but quickly ramp up anxious feelings. Whether it’s the pressure of maintaining a solid GPA as you look towards a graduate program or building an impressive resume for your future career, the expectations of performing at a high level all the time can be crippling.
Even though school-related stress is typical, that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. It’s common for stress to transition into feelings of depression or anxiety. This can ultimately make it even more difficult to concentrate and stay motivated to complete your coursework. We’ve outlined some things you can do to keep your stress levels in check during college.
You may want to ask yourself — are you taking too many classes? Is it possible to lighten your schedule or reorganize your semester plan to ease the burden a bit? Is it too much work or more of an issue of time management? When you feel the weight of too much school work and not enough time, don’t be afraid to take a step back and re-evaluate your plans. There is no shame in recognizing your own limits and taking steps to protect your mental health.
If you are struggling with a particular class, consider reaching out to your professor to see what resources are available. You may even want to ask another student in your class for help. Even though academic troubles can feel isolating, you aren’t alone; everyone struggles at some point. Try to not let the fear of asking for help keep you from advocating for yourself. Most college campuses have resources available to their students, including wellness centers, on-site counseling, and academic tutoring.
When you have too much to do and not enough time, it’s easy for stress levels to skyrocket. Take a step back and make a list of everything you need to do.28 After prioritizing what is important and getting started, enjoy the sense of accomplishment you feel from checking things off the list. Even just the act of writing it all out can help relieve a bit of the burden, not to mention the boost of dopamine you get from completing each task.29
Taking time to get good rest, connect with friends, and care for your body are all essential for managing your stress levels. Having some fun is important, too. You may find you can return and focus on school work better than ever if you allow yourself some breaks between study sessions.
When you are struggling with your mental health, it may feel overwhelming to know where to turn. You might want to start by talking with a friend or family member that you trust. If you feel it’s time to reach out for professional help, college campuses often offer mental health services for students. Survey data shows that the biggest barriers college students perceive when it comes to seeking out help are not enough money and time.4 However, some colleges provide free counseling services to current students. You may also have some coverage through your family’s health insurance plan.30 Here are some steps to follow as you explore your options while in college.
You can also contact your academic advisor or resident advisor (RA) if you live on campus. The Jed Foundation has additional resources on where to find a provider.31 If privacy is a concern for you, keep in mind that once you are 18 years old, you can authorize whether or not you want your health records to be shared with your parents or guardians. For more information about privacy laws, check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness college guide.32
Whether you are taking a 2nd-grade math test or the LSAT, anxiety around test taking is real and can feel debilitating. Before taking a test, be sure to get enough sleep, eat a good meal, and do your best to prepare for your exam. Despite all of your best preparations, test anxiety sometimes kicks in right when it’s time to get started. So what to do when the pressure is on? Here are a few tips that might help during exam time.
Sometimes, an emotional or mental health crisis is completely unpreventable. However, there are some lifestyle habits that you can do to set yourself up for success. Prioritizing self-care and staying aware of your needs is a solid first step to good mental health.
One of the most important ways you can take care of yourself is by getting a good night’s sleep. Children (ages 6-12) need 9 to 12 hours a night, teens (ages 13-18) require 8 to 10 hours, and young adults (18+) should get at least 7 hours a night.33 Contrary to what you might think, staying up all night to study for an exam can do more harm than good. Sleep gives your mind and body a chance to heal and refresh, while sleep deprivation can jump-start anxiety and depression.34
Exercise is an excellent way to improve your mental health.35 This doesn’t have to mean a full-on, high-impact cardio workout or rigid exercise routine. Just moving your body in a way that you enjoy can help with relaxation and focus. Not only does regular exercise release feel-good endorphins, but it’s a great way to redirect your thoughts away from what ails you. Moving your body for 30 minutes, 3-5 days a week, can significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms, but even a shorter block of time is effective.36 Try to view physical activity as a self-care tool rather than a chore to keep you motivated to move.
Spending time outside can be as simple as soaking up some vitamin D (a natural mood booster) or engaging in physical activity like hiking or walking.37 A change in scenery from the walls of a classroom can be instantly refreshing; in fact, just a 10-minute break can make a difference.38 Try eating lunch outside or enjoying a book in the sunshine.
Choosing a diet that contains a variety of protein, fruits, and vegetables is ideal for your mental health and overall well-being. Processed foods like soda, pre-packaged snack foods, instant noodle soups, and chicken nuggets are staples in the American diet, but try to diversify your nutrients. In fact, a whole field of research is devoted to the relationship between our gut and emotional health (nutritional psychiatry).39 It’s best to drink plenty of water and try to limit alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, as they may be triggers for anxiety and depression when used in excess.
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming fully present and aware of your body, thoughts, and surroundings without exercising judgment. This simple tool can be used to destress and refocus when you are feeling overwhelmed. A mindfulness exercise might be pausing from whatever you are working on, taking a deep breath, and checking in with yourself and your feelings. You can ask yourself, “How is my breath right now?” or “Do I need to unclench my jaw or loosen my shoulders?” From young children to college-aged students, mindfulness can be a powerful way to lessen anxiety.40 41
Breathing exercises are an easy way to relax the body and lower your heart rate. While there are many types of calming breaths you can experiment with, belly breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) is something students of all ages can try.42 First, try and get comfortable, then take a normal breath. Then, take a deep breath through your nose, letting your chest and belly expand fully. As you exhale, breathe out slowly through your mouth. You can repeat this as many times as you feel comfortable to reset your mind and body.
Writing down your thoughts and what you are struggling with can be therapeutic. Journaling is also a good way to develop more insight and find patterns in what is troubling you. If you aren’t sure where to start, look for a guided prompt journal to get started.
For people of all ages, it’s important to remember to have a little fun. For some, this can look like creating something with their hands (such as music or art). Seek out the things that make you feel lighter on your feet. For children, playtime with friends or family is a necessary source of connection and joy. For teens and young adults, take time to do things that make you laugh, whether it’s watching funny videos online, listening to music, playing video games, or going out to dinner with friends.
You don’t have to wait until you are in full crisis mode to seek professional help. A therapist can help you find tools to cope with whatever is troubling you, and there are many forms of therapy (and medication if you and your doctor decide) to choose from based on your individual needs. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to help treat anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, among other conditions.43 There is no shame in reaching out, and mental health professionals are trained to help, no matter what you are facing.
Being a student is challenging — and sometimes it can be difficult to know where to turn for help. We’ve compiled a list of resources that can help you or your loved ones who may be struggling with mental health concerns along their academic journey.
Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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