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  • Zachary Sullivan

How School Teaches Mental Illness

In the last decade or so, the number of youth with mental illness has skyrocketed. Rates of depression and anxiety in youth have increased by 70% in the last 25 years, and, according to Young Minds, a leading UK mental health organization, admissions for youth who self-harmed increased by 68% from 2001 to 2011.

Because on the surface, this generation seems better prepared, better equipped, and seems to have a better all-around lifestyle, the symptoms remain rarely discussed, and the causes of this rise remain a mystery to many. However, if you have been a student in the American public school system within the last decade, one of the major causes will be very obvious to you. Today’s students sit in a school system that often places precedence on prestige, academic excellence, standardized test scores, and education level rather than being more concerned with the mental health, stress levels, and overall preparedness of their students.

No matter your stance on the state of our school systems, the rising prevalence of mental illness in today’s youth has become a problem that can no longer be ignored, and the one constant between the overwhelming majority of our youth is the public education system. The problem that continues to stand, however, is that many either don’t realize or refuse to recognize that the school system is a major problem for youth mental health. Schools continue to insist that the methods they employ are the best available and that they are doing what will best prepare students for the future. However, there is no scientific proof that the methods they use are the best, and the formation of current teaching methods have little-to-no real basis in science.

With that said, I feel it is important to point out that many teachers do as much as they are able to do given their tightly restricted curriculum to prepare students. However, they are often handcuffed by the school system, hindering their ability to properly teach their students. When it comes to a point where a student will ask a teacher why a certain assignment or standard is necessary, and the teacher can only respond that they have to teach it to keep their job and provide decent tests scores but can give no reason otherwise (and often don’t know why, themselves) then there is a problem within the standards and curriculum that needs to be addressed.

Schools place incredible amounts of importance on standardized testing that simply tests students memories rather than pushing students to learn critical thinking skills, become quick problem solvers, and more skills that are infinitely valued at both the collegiate level and in the professional world. Similarly, the idea that a student’s GPA could determine the entire course of their life from what colleges are available, to what jobs they can access, to if they’ll be $40,000 in debt after leaving college weighs on the minds and shoulders of almost all high school students. Students are treated as children in the school environment but expected to respond as full grown adults. Meanwhile, students are still learning about themselves, changing their beliefs, experimenting in relationships, learning the basics of how the world works, and all the while, they are expected to place their school work ahead of everything else in their lives, whether it be family time, social interaction, or even eating and sleeping, which often get pushed to the side in favor of homework and studying.

All of these problems compound in a student’s psyche, causing higher stress levels, anxiety levels, lack of sleep, lack of eating, and other problems. These subsequent effects of poor school conditions have contributed massively to the rise in youth mental illness (now up to nearly ⅕ of youth are affected).


With all of this said, it is important that we not only focus on the problem, but rather work to find a solution that will fit all students and contribute to a decrease in youth mental illness, as opposed to a rise in it. This must start at the government level, creating laws and regulations that favor the students and their mental health. It can’t stop at that level, though. Individual school systems must be proactive in creating a support system for students that fosters growth, good mental health, and preparedness in those students and by allowing those students to properly learn and engage themselves in their classes and studies. Only together, with a collective effort from students, parents, teachers, schools, and the government can we properly tackle this major issue and truly make a difference, if not for today’s youth, then for the youth of the future.


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