The Classroom & Mental Health Are Interrelated

Depressed Teen gazing out window

A Significant Impact

Mental health is profoundly important in every aspect of a teen’s life, from interacting with others to developing a healthy self-image and identity. Unfortunately, the relationship between mental health and academics is often neglected or altogether forgotten. Success or failure in the classroom is frequently chalked up to individual motivation and intelligence, with mental health not even considered a factor. Viewing academic performance without consideration of mental health can be a mistake.

A student’s mental health can have a significant impact on their academic performance. Confidence and a willingness to make mistakes can push students to keep trying to succeed when they encounter challenges. On the other hand, a fear of failure rooted in anxiety can cripple a student’s motivation to keep learning. Understanding how mental health and the classroom are connected is one vital way to address obstacles to success that your teenager may be facing.

Anxiety and the Classroom

One of the most common mental health issues teenagers face is anxiety. Anxiety disorders are shockingly prevalent among adolescents, with one study finding that almost 1 in 3 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 had an anxiety disorder. Over 8 percent of such adolescents had a severe impairment.[i] Anxiety has been shown to negatively impact academic performance and has been associated with deficits in working memory.[ii]

Anxiety can stem from any number of sources. Past struggles with coursework may lead students to come to expect failure, resulting in academic anxiety. The prospect of socializing with other students may provoke anxiety. Likewise, anxiety may relate to a particular situation, such as tests or presentations in front of the class. These anxious feelings have the potential to negatively impact a student’s entire perception of school and education. They can also close them off from pursuing the very resources that could help them.

The Effects of Depression

Depression is another mental health condition which can prove devastating to a teen’s quality of life. Like anxiety, depression is a common experience for adolescents. A 2017 survey found that 31% of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks, and that these feelings led to a decrease in common activities.[iii] Depression frequently stems from and is made worse by perceived academic failures in students.[iv] It is also directly associated with lower grade point averages.[v] Dealing with depression can be difficult, since it impacts one’s ability to take the steps necessary to treat it. The feelings of hopelessness and self-doubt common to depression can easily discourage, or even prevent students from vital academic activities, like studying for a test or reaching out to a teacher to ask for help.

Depression and anxiety are not always easily spotted by friends, families, or loved ones. They are sometimes elusive even to the people experiencing them. Students may have difficulties focusing on assignments or course material. They may get extremely frustrated at assignments and conclude that they are not up to the task. While these reactions may be related to various conditions and stressors, they can also be signs of depression or anxiety.

Depression and Executive Dysfunction

Depression and anxiety are both related to executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction involves issues with planning, managing time, and initiating and following through on tasks. Executive dysfunction is frequently associated with ADHD, but can also stem from mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. It is closely linked to moderate to severe cases of depression. Students with executive dysfunction may have difficulties completing coursework. In more severe instances, executive dysfunction can make it very difficult to complete fundamental tasks, like brushing one’s teeth, showering, or even getting out of bed.

Anxiety’s role in executive dysfunction is less clear, but one study found that the degree of executive dysfunction a student experienced was connected to the severity of their anxiety symptoms.[vi] Anxiety issues often present difficulties with sustained attention – the kind of attention necessary for studying, paying attention in class, and similar important academic activities.

Co-Occurring Conditions

Mental health struggles do not exist in a vacuum. Such conditions can easily reinforce and build upon one another. For instance, it is common for anxiety and depression to co-occur and for one to enable and worsen the symptoms of the other. In less severe cases, anxiety, depression, and their related effects on executive function can be easily mistaken for lack of motivation. This is why communication is so important, and why parents need to know the signs of depression and anxiety. Feelings of apathy, fatigue, difficulty focusing, mood swings, sleep issues, changes in behavior, frequent worrying, and a loss of interest in favorite activities can all be signs of depression or anxiety, but there are many more.[v] Depression and anxiety can present differently in every individual, so it is best for parents to stay attentive to their child’s behavior and be willing to “check in” if something seems amiss.

Talk and Listen to Your Teen

Talking with a teen about their negative experiences with school is seldom easy. They may be reluctant to share and, when they do, it is likely that they won’t identify depression or anxiety directly. Listen for the ideas behind the words. If they say, “There’s no point in studying because I always mess it up anyway,” or “I just forget everything when I sit down to take the test,” what is really being communicated are specific attitudes and challenges around learning that can be addressed.

Depression and anxiety can be situational, meaning they may be responses to a particular event or feelings which have concrete, addressable causes. However, they can also be chronic conditions that someone lives with that can exist despite outside circumstances. The proper way to address these issues can depend on their severity and causes. If test anxiety is a problem, working together with a child to develop study habits and coping mechanisms may be all that is necessary. However, if more serious or persistent mental health issues exist, finding a good counselor or therapist can make a world of difference. Talking to your teen’s teachers can also be vital in helping them understand their struggles and making any necessary accommodations.  

Many teens struggle with mental health issues that can be compounded by the stress that emerges in a learning environment. Addressing such mental health issues can play a key role in improving academic performance, but more importantly, is vital to your child’s emotional well-being and quality of life. Anxiety and depression have far-reaching impacts on every avenue of life. The earlier they can be identified and addressed, the better the chance that your child can and will develop and grow into the person they want to be.


[i] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml

[ii] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/48f7/13efd8c86acac0c6932a90c06bf7100428d8.pdf

[iii] https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/facts-and-stats/national-and-state-data-sheets/adolescent-mental-health-fact-sheets/united-states/index.html

[iv] https://go.gale.com/ps/anonymous?id=GALE%7CA201608594&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=01463934&p=AONE&sw=w

[v] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5535328/

[vi] https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/are-you-missing-these-signs-of-anxiety-or-depression

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