Academic Challenges

Whether you’re in high school, college, graduate school, or really any academic environment, being a student can be complicated. It’s often a source of excitement, inspiration, and personal development, but it can also be stressful. For some students, academic issues can be closely connected to mental health symptoms. Some students' problems with school might lead to mental health challenges, while a mental health condition could also lead to trouble with school.

It’s normal to experience stress and emotional setbacks in school from time to time; nearly everyone has experienced test anxiety or disappointment over negative feedback.

However, if your academic challenges are causing you significant stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns on a regular basis, you may want to seek support from a therapist.

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In the United States, being a student with a rigorous academic schedule seems to be a common source of stress and other mental health concerns, especially among college undergraduates. An annual survey from The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors reports that:

  • 48.2% of college students involved in the study reported experiencing anxiety
  • 39.1% experienced stress  
  • 34.5% experienced depression
  • 7.8% struggle with perfectionism

While it’s hard to know whether academic challenges specifically cause these conditions, there seems to be a clear link between poor mental health  and the intense academic experience of college students.

Another report from The Center for Collegiate Mental Health notes that out of over 160,000 students at 147 schools who used their college counseling centers in 2017:

  • 26.8% listed academic performance as a concern
  • 3.3% reported that academic performance was their most important concern

School-related tension can also have repercussions for students who aren’t in college. For example, a study from New York University found that almost half of the high school students studied experienced significant levels of stress.

Students will have different reactions to academic issues, but here are a few of the most common mental health challenges that may be related to academic challenges:

  • Anxiety or worry: Many students may be preoccupied with worry about time management, balancing responsibilities, test anxiety, and find it hard to relax or think about other things.
  • Depression: Emotional and academic challenges in high school or college can lead to sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, and other symptoms of depression.
  • Conflicts with friends and/or family: Mental pressure in a school setting may make students irritable and more prone to getting into conflicts with parents and loved ones.
  • Issues with self-esteem: A student may doubt their intelligence or competence as a result of setbacks in academics.
  • Identity concerns: Many students have uncertainty about their academic path or success, which may be a source of difficulty in their identity development.
  • Physical symptoms: Stress often comes with physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles. Some students might find that these symptoms get worse when they're at school or thinking about school.
  • Difficulty sleeping: Worry about academics might keep a student from falling asleep or sleeping through the night.

Types of academic challenges

Issues with academics can take many different forms. Here are a few of the most common scenarios:

  • Learning disabilities: Students with  learning disabilities or a mental health condition that affects school performance (such as ADHD), may find it hard to manage the way that mental health impacts study habits and academic life.
  • Perfectionism: Many students might find it difficult to accept anything other than perfect grades and complete academic success. Sometimes parents impress the importance of academic achievement and higher education on their children, which often leads to more anxiety for the student.
  • Imposter syndrome: Especially in an elite or high-pressure school, some students may worry that they don’t really belong and won’t measure up to the other students.
  • Bullying: Bullying and other social challenges at school can occur in any educational setting, from elementary through graduate school.
  • Financial stress: Student loans, debt, and income challenges are common sources of stress.
  • Academic changes and transitions: Switching to a new school, declaring a new major, or even starting a new class can all be related to changes in academic content or study habits and responsibilities that may translate to mental health challenges.
  • Time management challenges: Procrastination, difficulty staying organized, poor study techniques, lack of time management skills, and other related challenges can make school environments more stressful.
  • Test anxiety: Many students might experience intense worry and anxiety related specifically to taking tests and/or other kinds of evaluations.
  • Balancing school with work, family, and other responsibilities: It's not uncommon for students to be in school while working, caring for parents or family, or keeping other commitments like clubs or sports teams. They may be more susceptible to stress and other mental health challenges.
  • Discrimination or harassment: Students being harassed at school or discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability, you may experience mental health challenges related to this mistreatment.

If you’re dealing with any of the issues described here, you have several options:

  • Therapy: Therapy can be a helpful way for students to work on understanding academic related troubles and develop strategies for dealing with any related mental health challenges. (More tips on finding a therapist below.)
  • Talk to an advisor: In most school settings, there should be an advisor or counseling services designated to help students with academic struggles. When having trouble managing workload, scheduling classes, working with professors or classmates, or handling an academic program in general, advisors may be able to help solve problems and connect to other resources at your high school or college.
  • Make a self-care plan: Putting together a concrete plan for taking care of yourself can be a great way to stay calm and healthy in the face of academic issues. Try working with a friend or group of friends and brainstorm ways to prioritize sleep, healthy editing, hydration, relaxation, and other aspects of a balanced college life.
  • Stay active: Some studies show that regular physical activity can decrease symptoms of anxiety, which often go along with academic stress.
  • Pursue creative projects or hobbies: Visual arts, performing arts, and creative writing can all be helpful ways to diffuse your body’s stress response and add fulfilling activities to your daily life. Keeping up hobbies outside of being a high school or college student can also remind you that academics are only one part of your high school or college career, not the entirety of your existence.

Therapy types for academic challenges

A few of different kinds of psychotherapy may be helpful for academic issues. Depending on the nature of your challenges, you might want to work with a therapist who focuses on stress, anxiety, or self-esteem.

Try exploring the following varieties of psychotherapy and see which you think might be good fits for your specific academic issues:

What to look for in a therapist for academic challenges

You’ll want to make sure that your therapist is qualified to treat challenges related to academic stress, as well as any specific related mental health problems you may be experiencing. This will usually involve:

  • Advanced education in a field related to mental health, such as psychiatry, psychology, or social work
  • Licensure to practice in the state where you live
  • Added training and/or experience in treating issues related to high school and college students — specifically, along with previous experience with any mental health concerns you want to address. For example, if you have anxiety related to school, you’ll want to work with a therapist who is experienced in treating anxiety.

Finally, as with any therapy, it’s important to make sure that your therapist is a good fit for your unique needs. Be sure to evaluate the following in your initial calls with therapists:

  • How will you pay for therapy? Does the therapist take your insurance or otherwise offer rates that will work with your budget?
  • When and where will you attend sessions? Does the therapist offer treatment at a location that is convenient for you and at times that work with your schedule?
  • Most importantly, do you feel comfortable talking to this therapist and sense that you have the potential to develop a therapeutic alliance?