Link found between academic pressure and mental health problems in adolescence

A new study led by UCL researchers has found a positive association between academic pressure or proximity to exams and mental health issues among young people.

The research, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, reviewed 52 studies involving students who attended either primary school, secondary school or sixth-form college across the globe, between 1991 and 2022.

In 48 of the studies there was a positive association between academic pressure or proximity to exams and mental health issues. However, most studies were cross-sectional, meaning that it is impossible to determine which happens first - exposure to high levels of academic pressure or mental health problems.

The team are now calling for larger cohort studies on the subject. These types of studies are needed to decide whether interventions should be developed, evaluated and put in place to support the mental health of adolescents throughout their education.

Lead author, PhD candidate Thomas Steare (UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science), said: "Adolescents are increasingly feeling pressure from schools, parents, or themselves to achieve higher grades, and there are concerns extensive testing and exams are causing undue stress."

The report noted that mental health-related hospital admissions among Canadian adolescents were highest from January to April and October to November but lowest during periods of school closure in July, August and December.

A similar study in England found that stress-related emergency admissions were highest for teenagers during term-time and lowest during holidays.

Meanwhile, the researchers found that suicide attempts by adolescents were also rarer during non-school months of June, July, and August in two US studies assessing the rate of hospital admission for them across the year.

Mixed anxiety and depressive symptoms were the most commonly-assessed outcome of the review, with eight out of 20 studies reporting a link between academic pressure and psychosomatic symptoms.

However, in their review, the team found that the term "academic pressure" was used inconsistently across studies.

Mr Steer said: "We looked at over 50 studies across a range of countries and consistently found that adolescents that perceived higher levels of academic pressure were more likely to experience mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, or have suicidal thoughts - findings that are unlikely to be a surprise for many young people, teachers, or parents.

"These studies were mainly carried out at a single time-point, so we cannot say for certain whether academic pressure contributed to the development of these mental health problems. However, our findings warrant further research on this topic and greater consideration by policymakers regarding the impact that the pressure put on students to succeed at school may be having on adolescents’ mental health."

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