Academic Competition and Mental Health Issues

Kindbridge has extensively covered common mental health issues in college student athletes. Of course, such concerns are not exclusive to those who spend their time on the court, track, and field. In fact, student mental health across the U.S. as a whole is in crisis. During the 2020-2021 academic year, over 60% of college students met the criteria for one or more mental health issues, according to the Healthy Minds Survey which questioned 350,000 students at 373 campuses. Another recent survey revealed an even bleaker picture. The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment 2021 found that almost 75% of students reported moderate or serious psychological distress.

So, what is behind the student mental health crisis? The emotional challenges of the pandemic – including enforced social isolation, lack of face-to-face classes and loss of the typical college experience – has caused a surge in mental health problems. But universities and colleges were struggling to cope with the demand for mental health care pre-Covid. One reason for this increase in demand is positive – there is less stigma around mental health conditions which is encouraging more students to seek help rather than suffer in silence.

However, other reasons are less positive. A 2022 Student Voice survey into the Current State of Mental Health at more than 100 higher education institutions found these top stressors that students were struggling to cope with:

  • Keeping up with coursework – 57%
  • Pressure to do well at college – 47%
  • Concerns about money – 46%
  • Balancing school and work commitments – 41% 
  • Balancing school and family obligations – 27% 
  • Concerns about finding a job – 26% 
  • Invasion of Ukraine/other international conflicts – 17%.

According to the survey, the most stressful elements of the college experience were keeping up with coursework and pressure to do well. Both of these stressors link to academic competition – either the pressure that students put on themselves or the pressure (or perceived pressure) from others including college staff, peers and parents. While academic competition can motivate students to work harder and achieve higher grades it can also create unhealthy levels of stress, leading to anxiety and depression which can adversely affect academic performance. Below is a breakdown of each, along with guidance for where to get immediate help.

Impact of Academic Competition on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression and Where to Turn to for Help

Academic Competition and Stress

Students can experience the stress of academic competition even before they arrive on campus, as colleges and universities are increasingly drawing applicants from a global pool. After securing a place, there is continued pressure to succeed in the highly competitive environment. 

A study into Academic Stress and Mental Well-Being in College Students found a significant link between academic stress and poor mental health. And, female, non-binary and second year students experienced higher academic stress and worse emotional well-being than others. According to one of the co-authors, Xue Ming, MD, PhD, professor of neurology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, the possible reasons for academic stress include “ranking systems, peer pressure, global competition in the job market, and parental and societal demands regarding grades.” She explained that “colleges are perceived by some as a competition stage and less of pure learning environment.”

An American College Health Association student survey found academic stress to be one of the biggest health obstacles to college performance. Of the 97,357 students who took part in the survey, 32% reported that academic stress had resulted in an incomplete or dropped course, or a lower grade.

Academic Competition and Anxiety and Depression

Research into Competition, Anxiety and Depression in the College Classroom examined the relationship between academic competition, and anxiety and depression in college students. It found a link between high levels of perceived competition in classes and depression and anxiety. Students who perceived their classroom environments to be very competitive had 37% higher odds of depression and 69% higher odds of anxiety.

The study also found a stronger association between perceived competition, and anxiety and depression in students from historically underrepresented and/or marginalized backgrounds. For example, LGBTQ students had a heightened risk of depression and anxiety in competitive learning environments. And, female students who perceived their college environment to be very competitive had a 6.2% higher chance of screening positive for anxiety and 5.2% higher chance of screening positive for depression compared with female students who did not perceive high levels of academic competition. Whereas male students who perceived their college environment to be very competitive had a 3.8% chance of increased anxiety and 3.6% chance of increased depression compared with male students in a non-competitive environment.

The correlation between competition, and anxiety and depression also varies by subject. Academic competition is associated with a higher likelihood of anxiety for those studying natural sciences, social sciences, law, engineering, business and social work than for students majoring in humanities.

Immediate Mental Health Support for College Students

The mental health crisis at universities and colleges across the U.S. has led to a huge increase in demand for support that is outstripping supply. If you, or a loved one, are struggling to access on-campus mental health care, we can help. 

At Kindbridge, we have fully-qualified counsellors available immediately and our online services are accessible wherever you are studying. We offer fast and effective treatment and support for a wide range of mental health conditions including stress, anxiety and depression.

Call +1 (877) 426-4258 or email [email protected] today for a free initial consultation with our care co-ordinator.