Earlier this week, the Justice Department announced charges related to a college admissions bribery scheme. Hollywood actresses and Wall Street executives were among those involved in paying a company to help their children cheat on college entrance tests or bribe sports recruiters to help increase their children’s chances of getting into high-profile universities.
There are tons of systemic issues related to this scandal, like how wealth and privilege often determine who is able to pursue higher education. Less discussed in this conversation is the issue of mental health. The situation only further highlights the overwhelming pressure on young adults to appear and be successful ― pressure that can come from both themselves and, most dangerously, their parents.
New research published Thursday in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that rates of depression, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts have increased significantly over the last 10 to 12 years among young people under the age of 26. Symptoms associated with major depression rose by 52 percent in adolescents ages 12 to 17 ― those in prime schooling and college prep years.
Researchers attribute this problem mostly to social media, which includes the immense pressure it inflicts on young adults to be perfect. That’s true, and it’s a conclusion studies find time and time again. But experts say ― and other research shows ― that pressure to be perfect also extends to academics.
“The sense that success or failure are very high stakes has led to an intensifying of the competition to get into elite colleges ... there is no room for error at all. If you get a B in seventh grade, there is a perception that your future is shot,” said Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of The Jed Foundation, a mental health organization that primarily focuses on teenagers. “So the result has been all kinds of efforts ― legal and sometimes not ― to control the system and the outcomes.”
This extreme focus on achievement that comes from parents can then lead to poor mental health outcomes for their kids, Schwartz said. This also isn’t new information. Past research has found that perfectionism increases a person’s risk for depression, particularly when the pressure is coming from parents. But it’s worth revisiting given this new mental health report and the news around the college admissions scandal.
“The intense competition for academic achievement, or the appearance of achievement, and résumé building have arguably taken time away from social skills and connection-building activities like joining clubs, intramural sports and even just spending time playing or daydreaming,” he added. “These all can feed a sense of anxiety and despair in many young people.”
“The intense competition for academic achievement, or the appearance of achievement, and résumé building have arguably taken time away from social skills and connection-building activities like joining clubs, intramural sports and even just spending time playing or daydreaming.”
In a piece for Psych Central, Lynn Margolies, a Massachusetts-based psychologist, sums up just how parents’ views and behaviors about academic success ― whether it’s pushing children not to fail or stepping in so they can’t ― can shape their children more than they realize.
“Our teens are embedded in a culture driven by competition and perfectionism, where success is defined by status, performance and appearance,” Margolies wrote. “These values are transmitted to our children nonverbally through our emotional state and through what we notice, are impressed with, and praise or discourage in them.”
It’s not provocative to say that cheating the system by paying your kid’s way into an elite school doesn’t actually help them, even if the intention is the opposite. But placing an intense pressure to succeed ― even if it means resorting to illegal measures ― negatively affects mental health in a way that could potentially alter the rest of their life.
“We need to understand that how we function as a society also has a profound impact on young people’s growth and development. Our decisions and actions can and do have consequences often way beyond what we immediately imagine,” Schwartz said.
He added, “This [new study] and the recent [college admission] scandal show how social influences and our day-to-day behavior can have profound ramifications for and impact on those around us.”