Under Pressure: How Student Stress is a Growing, Dangerous Risk Across Academia

It begins with a reaction. Heart rate increases. Adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine begin to surge. Muscles tense and tighten, thoughts become unclear and now there is a decision to be made—fight or flight?

Stress. It’s a complex yet instant reaction that all of us encounter and try to manage daily. It’s also something Americans have statistically struggled with for years, and now new studies are showing that teenagers are the ones taking on the heaviest loads—and it’s taking a serious toll.

According to the American Psychological Association, teenage students are reporting levels of stress in recent years that exceed those of adults. The problem is only exacerbated by teens who don’t have an adequate gauge on just how much stress they may be facing and the potential long-term consequences that come with it.

Teenagers encounter a number of stress-inducing situations, including those found in the classroom, among social circles and at home.

Research from the Frontiers in Psychology shows that one of the biggest contributors of chronic stress for teenage students is the pressure surrounding college admission and increasingly competitive academic environments.

High-performing students are expected to stretch themselves in the years leading up to college in order to gain a competitive edge during the admission process. This means more Advanced Placement courses, SAT prep sessions, extracurricular activities and hours of homework a night—which leaves less and less personal time for students.

If it’s not the rigors of academia, new shifts in the technological and social media landscapes have created a plethora of new stressors for students.

Those glued to their devices who constantly check emails, texts and social media messages—the “constant checker”—have stress levels that have been reported higher than those who do not engage with technology as frequently.

There’s also growing awareness around the topic of bullying and cyber-bullying. Students who are bullied tend to deal with a range of lasting, negative academic, social, physical and mental health issues.

Whatever the source, prolonged, chronic stress can take a devastating toll on the physical and mental health of students. Long-term symptoms can be extensive, and they include compromised immune systems, high blood pressure, insomnia and depression.

Researchers have revealed that chronic stress is likely to carry into the college years and beyond. This can create a number of obstacles for those trying to navigate through curriculum and course load, including academic and social disengagement and mental health challenges.

In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health says anxiety—our reaction to stress—is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, impacting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults.

It’s probably no surprise that anxiety and depression are now the most common mental health challenges facing college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

Regardless of how far along students are in their academic trek, the pressure and stress can eventually become too much for some to handle. Studies show that a certain number of students who try to cope with stress do so with alcohol, drugs, self-harm and—in extreme cases—suicide.

While suicide is relatively uncommon among children, the number of suicides and suicide attempts begin to rise during adolescent years.

In the last decade, the number of hospital admissions for suicidal teens has doubled. The suicide rate among 10 to 14-year-olds has also doubled. For teenagers 15 to 19-years-old, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death, surpassing homicide in recent years.

These are unsettling figures that administrators, teachers, parents, psychologists and a range of health professionals try to combat and deal with throughout the school year and beyond. As researchers refine their findings, healthy coping strategies are growing in relevance as the topic of mental health takes a front seat in the social and academic spectrum.

Things like exercise, meditation and creative outlets are gaining popularity as ways to reduce stress levels and ensure long-term health. In addition, there is a growing cultural shift across the country that’s giving a voice to those dealing with depression, anxiety and mental illness.

Just last month, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) ran its Suicide Prevention Awareness Month campaign to share resources and stories in an effort to shed light on this topic. There are even trending hashtags across the web that support these initiatives, such as #SuicidePrevention and #StigmaFree. In fact, this attempt to remove the stigma that had long been associated with mental illness has been a major component of this effort.

With this in mind, what strategies can schools expand upon or implement that support these efforts?

For most higher-ed institutions, the Office of Student Affairs is typically the division within the institution that oversees these types of issues. For lower-ed institutions this type of resource may or may not exist.  However, as we’ve seen in many other areas of risk management, both higher-ed and lower-ed institutions with more limited resources can take their higher-ed counterpart’s lead and implement similar resources on a modified basis.

If this is a new concept for your school, let’s make it simple. Rather than create an entire division, why not start with an Advisory Committee?  Committee members might include:

  • Counselors and other student advisors and mentors
  • School Administrators
  • Division Heads
  • Teachers and other staff
  • Parents
  • Students
  • Legal Counsel
  • Representatives from key community based organizations that serve youth

Regular meetings and proactive discussion among the members will allow certain areas to become a priority focus, upon which the group can then roundtable solutions and resources for the benefit of the student population.

Bringing the school community together to tackle some of these tougher issues helps reinforce a culture of caring and nurturing while creating a safe and effective learning environment.

As a final reminder, the most effective controls should include:

  • Annual review of Student Handbook policies and Student Code of Conduct
  • Post incident and special event reviews (as appropriate)
  • Update emergency response protocols
  • Implement and update training annually
  • Support training new staff on risks, controls and documentation expectations
  • Build trusting relationships with students
  • Documentation

Ultimately, it’s the honest and open dialog surrounding stress, anxiety and the negative implications that come with it—especially for young people—that will advance the conversation on this difficult topic.

Regardless of where the communication comes from—school leaders, teachers, parents or friends—the most important thing is that it’s happening—and hopefully saving lives in the process.


Bullying/Cyber Bullying Prevention information can be found at the following websites:

Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides a number of resources including toolkits for schools to help prevent suicide and what action to take after a suicide:

Downloadable Model School Policy:

From the State of Washington’s School Safety Center:



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About Cheryl McDowell

Cheryl has over 30 years of experience in the areas of insurance and risk management. With Bolton’s Education Practice Group, she works with education clients to review and improve their existing risk management and insurance programs, including coordination of forensic audits of the school’s existing risk management and insurance programs.

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