Whether you’re in college, graduate school, or really any academic environment, school can be complicated. It’s often a source of excitement, inspiration, and personal development, but it can also be stressful. For some people, academic issues can be closely connected to mental health symptoms. Trouble 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 anxiety before a test or disappointment over negative feedback.
However, if your academic issues are causing you significant stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns on a regular basis, you may want to seek support from a therapist.
Prevalence of mental health challenges related to academic issues
In the United States, academic issues seem 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 issues specifically cause these mental health conditions, there seems to be a clear link between mental health issues and the intense academic experience of college.
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 stress can also be a problem for students who aren’t undergraduates. For example, a study from New York University found that almost half of the high school students studied experienced significant levels of stress.
Mental health conditions related to academic issues
Different people 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 issues:
- Anxiety or worry: You may be preoccupied with worry about managing your academic work and find it hard to relax or think about other things.
- Depression: Challenges in school can lead to sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, and other symptoms of depression.
- Conflicts with friends and/or family: Stress in a school setting may make you irritable and more prone to getting into conflicts with loved ones.
- Issues with self-esteem: You may doubt your intelligence or competence as a result of setbacks in academics.
- Identity concerns: Uncertainty about your academic path or success may be a source of difficulty in your identity development.
- Physical symptoms: Stress often comes with physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles. You might find that these symptoms get worse when you’re at school, or thinking about school.
- Difficulty sleeping: Worry about academics might keep you from falling asleep or sleeping through the night.
Types of academic issues
Issues with academics can take many different forms. Here are a few of the most common scenarios:
- Learning differences: If you have a learning difference or a mental health condition that impacts school performance (such as ADHD), you may find it hard to manage the way that your mental health impacts your academic life.
- Perfectionism: It might be difficult for you to accept anything other than perfect grades and complete academic success.
- Imposter syndrome: Especially in an elite or high-pressure school, you may worry that you 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 preschool 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 mental health challenges.
- Time management challenges: Procrastination, difficulty staying organized, and other related challenges can make school environments more stressful.
- Test anxiety: You 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: If you’re in school while working, caring for family, or maintaining other commitments like clubs or sports teams, you may be more susceptible to stress and other mental health challenges.
- Discrimination or harassment: If you’re 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.
What to do if you’re experiencing mental health challenges related to academic issues
If you’re dealing with any of the issues described here, you have a number of options:
- Therapy: Therapy can be a helpful way to work on understanding your academic issues 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 designated to help you with academic issues. If you’re having trouble managing classes, working with professors or classmates, or handling your academic program in general, your advisor may be able to help you solve problems and connect to other resources at your school.
- 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 lifestyle.
- 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 with hobbies outside of school can also remind you that academics are only one part of your life, not the entirety of your existence.
Therapy types for academic issues
A number 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:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Holistic Therapy
- Existential Therapy
- Psychodynamic Therapy
What to look for in a therapist for academic issues
You’ll want to make sure that your therapist is qualified to treat academic issues, 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
- Additional training and/or experience in treating academic issues specifically, along with previously experience with any mental health conditions 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?