Aiming high is a priority for many families that want to secure a future for their children, and some try to get their foot in the door in high-ranking schools as early as possible.

Such schools are difficult to get into and even more difficult to pass. So not all are going to get in and certainly not all that get in will come out.

Dog Eat Dog

The result has been a highly-competitive environment where failure is not an option, according to parents. Yet the students know that failure is an inevitability for some of them. And it could be them.

Add to this the fact that schools don’t just teach. They offer a wide range of academic and extracurricular offerings.

So in a surprising turn of events, top colleges have an alarming share of students that have a higher rate of mental health problems than the national averages, causing some studies to label students in “high-achieving schools” as “at-risk.”

The New Normal

This status used to be reserved for the students that either failed to get into a high-achieving school or never had a chance in the first place, especially among kids dealing with poverty and absent parents.

Let that sink in for a moment. The students that get into the best of the best institutions are facing the same mental health issues as those that struggle with low-income, trauma, and discrimination.

Stress is Stress… Is Stress

The causes of the stress may be different, but the result is the same: Chronic stress with pronounced effects on the well-being of the student.

It comes down to a fundamental law of biology. The higher the stress in your life, the worse the outcome, no matter what the source of the stress is.

Naturally, some parents are going to be surprised by this data. They’re going to want to know where all the pressure is coming from.

Trouble in Paradise

It’s more a matter of where isn’t it coming from. Students in high-achieving schools don’t just see their future staked to their success. They see the approval, even the love, of their parents, their school coaches, and favorite teachers.

Reputations and ratings are on the line, which can affect the real-estate figures in the area.

The threads tied to those students are many and tangled.

Add to this the fact that acceptance rates are lower than ever at these top colleges.

Students that might otherwise be friends and form a support system must now compete with each other for spots in certain classes.

The act of learning and building skills has been reduced to a task that needs done. A means to an end. Students that once enjoyed the process of learning and doing can end up having the joy sucked out of their education.

Factor in the stress of knowing that if you fall, your peers are dying for a chance to outshine you.

It Starts Early

This starts much earlier than in high school or college. Remember the glitz and glamour surrounding things like spelling bees, the advanced reading track, and the sports teams?

Remember the overachievers in middle and high school? How they ran on very little sleep and every minute of their day was under a schedule?

The college students that are coming unglued have been a product in development for a very long time.

When The Cracks Appear

That kind of stress has led to higher rates of depression, anxiety, acting out, and substance abuse. The rates are upwards of two to three times the national average.

We can’t overlook the fact that tying a student’s worth to what they can accomplish does not foster a healthy outlook. Not on oneself and not on others.

It would be a far cry to say that every student in high-achieving schools has experienced the same pressures and reacted the same way. Some get by alright. But as a group, the numbers are impossible to ignore.

It’s been communicated to these students in one form or another that the only way to a successful job and sustainable pay is the narrow path through whichever high-achieving school they set their sights on.

But what keeps some students from succumbing to that pressure while others buckle?

People, Not Things

One piece of the puzzle has to do with the values that the students were taught by their parents.

One study revealed that students who had been taught to value character over accomplishments held together better.

The survey had the students rank a list of values in the order that they felt their parents would. Three values were achievement-oriented and three other values were about character traits, such as being respectful, helpful, and kind.

The more the values of character outranked the values of achievement, the more the student was likely to do alright.

It’s a real wake-up call for parents who might say that character and behavior are a top priority, but that tell on themselves in little ways. The messages about the importance of achievement are omnipresent in the schools, and they tune the ears of our children so that when they see or hear their parents indicate a love of things or achievements, they recognize it.

They see it for what it is.

Our children see what turns our heads, what we put first in the day, what we admire in others, and what gets the lion’s share of our time and energy.

Even if the values passed on to our children are noble and healthy, a simple lack of balance can have negative effects.

Focusing on one single thing from sunup until sundown will take its toll, and that includes education. There needs to be room for things that buffer against stress and pressure, like eating together as a family, playtime, downtime, etc.

The Spectre of Addiction

A reality of all colleges, bottom to top, is consumption of drugs and alcohol. What starts as a one-time experiment becomes a coping mechanism to keep the electricity of stress and pressure out.

There are some new insights into addiction that could not have come at a better time for troubled students under pressure.

The classic understanding of addiction has been that the brain forms a chemical dependency on the high created by a substance, which is scientific and logical.

The feeling of well-being caused by a substance is no longer a luxury, but the standard, because the brain resets itself so that the presence of the substance is “normal.”

By that logic, every soldier that had gone off to war would have come home a junkie because of the high-grade morphine issued to the injured on the battlefield. It wasn’t the street-level stuff. This was the real deal with a pure high to go along with the painkilling properties.

The truth was that some soldiers came home from war and acclimated to civilian life just fine, never reaching for a fix of morphine.

Some of their associates became the stereotype of the veteran-turned-addict, but not all. That doesn’t square up with the classic understanding of addiction.

The difference was found in the support system that the soldier had when he got home. Veterans that had friends and family and meaningful connections among them had no trouble leaving the morphine alone.

Veterans that lived alone or that had few valued relationships fared the worst.

One researcher took this data to the next level with a study involving rats. 

He placed rats in a cage all by themselves with no rats and no toys. He supplied them with two water bottles: One with regular water and the other with heroin or cocaine in it.

He placed other rats in another cage that had everything a rat could dream of: toys, slides, and most importantly, other rats. He called it Rat Park.

The isolated rats turned to the drug-laced water frequently until they overdosed and died.

The Rat Park rats left the drug water alone.

The Opposite of Addiction Isn’t Sobriety

The point of this study in this article is this: If we don’t want students turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with their stress and pressure, they need meaningful connections.

The Rat Park studies show us that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection. 

Prioritizing achievement above all else, including the value of character, will devalue connection, will elevate impersonal, unfeeling things above all things human.

Drug addiction among students, therefore, isn’t kids just being kids. It’s a sign of a lack of human connection.

For parents and friends, that means that keeping the lines of communication open is crucial, or else the student may start using substances to simulate the well-being that could be experienced with love and friendship.

Unconditional love is a powerful weapon against stress and pressure. If love is associated with performance and success, then a student’s view of how they’re valued will constantly be under attack.

Drugs are harmful, but their effect is delivered with 100% dependability. In the absence of meaningful connections that include unconditional love, that kind of reliability of relief is tempting.

So how can parents solve this problem effectively? Without erasing a healthy respect for dreaming and achieving?

Ideally, parents would start when the messages about achievement first start bombarding their children: early in life.

We may not be pushing our kids to get into college at such a tender age in preschool, but we can still communicate high expectations with something as simple as tone of voice or a raised eyebrow. We should be aware of how we do this.

Another factor in the equation is the fact that children are not born knowing how to manage their anger. Small children will react to distress with lots of screaming and thrashing.

Adults respond differently because of the anger management skills they’ve acquired.

“Shop around” the mental health world for coping strategies that fit your child. Positive affirmations and breathing exercises may work wonders for one child, while punching a pillow may be what’s required for another one.

The important thing is that by the time your child is a student and finds themselves dealing with negative emotions in school, they know what to do with it and how to direct it, instead of either holding it in until it causes psychological problems, or recklessly unleashing it on those around them.

Also, wouldn’t it be nice if the school is looking out for the mental health of their students as much as the parents?

Without throwing a healthy concern for academic success out the window, look for schools that have programs in place to support stressed students. The more “open-door” policies, the better. It’s possible to encourage goals and reaching for great things and also be there to help students that feel overwhelmed.

But there’s no substitute for the things that can be done at home.

Mother Theresa is quoted as saying, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

Parents can become so caught up in the business of everyday life that they forget to nourish and nurture the corner of society they have in their own home. Being observant and available to your children will make them feel safe and foster a sense of trust and communication.

Closing Thoughts

From what we’ve examined, there’s room on all fronts in today’s high-achieving schools to help improve the mental health of students.

The schools can either implement programs or provide access to problems that help students sort out their stress load. In the age of the internet, this could be as simple as posting a brochure with a web address on a bulletin board.

Parents and friends of the students can take the initiative to reassure the student that they’re cared for and loved. If the students are young, toddlers even, then we have the perfect chance to teach them how to handle and direct anger in productive ways.

And as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water…

Students that are under intense pressure need to accept the help once it’s offered. Nobody can force you to get help. There’s no shame in seeking aid. It isn’t a sign of weakness.