Depression in high school has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade. But does school cause depression, or does it just make existing depression worse? School and mental health professionals are looking closely at this question as part of addressing today’s teen mental health crisis.
For some teens, the structure of school is helpful, particularly if they receive support at school for emotional or cognitive issues. But for other high school students, school can catalyze or worsen anxiety, depression, loneliness, poor self-esteem, and other psychological challenges. Meanwhile, US school districts are experiencing significant shortages in the number of school counselors available to provide mental health services.
- School-related stressors such as bullying and academic pressure can catalyze or contribute to adolescent depression.
- Because teens are dealing with so many physical and emotional changes during this period of development, it’s harder for them to cope with stress.
- Social media has magnified typical teen issues like loneliness and poor body image, leading to higher levels of depression in high school.
- Mental health treatment and loving support from parents can help teens heal from teen depression.
2023 Statistics on Depression in High School
Before we look more closely at the causes of depression in schools, let’s examine the most recent statistics on mental health in high school students. What percentage of kids in school are depressed? Research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that more than 1 in 3 high school students has experienced poor mental health over the past few years. Furthermore, nearly half of students report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Statistics from Mental Health America (MHA) confirm the high rates of depression in high school. Here are MHA’s 2023 statistics on high school depression:
- 16 percent of US teens (ages 12 to 17)—more than 4 million adolescents—had at least one major depressive episode in 2022.
- In addition, 11.5 percent of US youth (over 2.7 million high school students) are experiencing major depressive disorder with severe impairment.
- 3 in 5 teens with depression received no mental health treatment. In some states, three-quarters of high school students with depression did not receive mental health services.
- Even teens who did access care rarely received consistent treatment. On average, fewer than 1 in 3 adolescents with severe depression received consistent care.
While awareness around mental health has grown enormously in recent years, that awareness doesn’t always translate into taking action. Teens need support from parents, school professionals, and other care providers and mentors in order to access treatment for depression in high school.
Moreover, research shows that 75 percent of all mental health conditions begin in adolescence and young adulthood. Hence, the high school and college years are a critical time for understanding and talking about mental health, and ensuring young people get the care they need so they can move into the next stage of life with tools for thriving and self-care.
Can School Cause Depression?
In addition to genetics and brain structure, environmental factors—stress in particular—play a significant role in mental illnesses like teen depression. And for many adolescents, school is an ongoing source of stress. If a teen already has depression, the stress of school can make it worse. Or school-related stressors can eventually lead to depression.
Why does school cause depression and stress? Here are some of the emotional and psychological challenges teens face at school:
School pressure: Many teens experience some degree of academic pressure. And an uncertain economy and tough competition for college and graduate school make that pressure worse. For some students, academic pressure triggers perfectionism, which can have a negative impact on teen well-being. Teen sports can also create pressure and expectations that contribute to high school depression.
Bullying: Bullying is directly correlated with depression in high school and middle school. Recent research shows that bullying was a major factor in the increase in teen suicides when students returned to in-person school after online learning during the pandemic. LGBTQ, Asian, Black, and multiracial students report the highest levels of bullying and poor treatment in school, according to the CDC’s Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey.
Peer relationships: For teens who struggle with social anxiety or are simply more shy or reserved, peer relationships can be a source of extreme stress. Furthermore, teens typically experience their first romantic relationships in high school or college. While this is an essential part of teen development, it can also be emotionally challenging. This is particularly true if teens don’t have guidance and support in navigating this new terrain.
Overscheduling: Between homework, extracurricular activities, socializing, and after-school jobs, high school students don’t have enough time to relax and replenish. This can lead to burnout, sleep deprivation, and not enough time spent with family.
Additional Factors in Adolescent Depression
What makes school stressors worse is that adolescents are already struggling with the challenges that come with maturing. A teen’s life isn’t easy. Adolescent development comes with changes in mood and biology that impact teen’s ability to cope. They’re figuring out their likes and dislikes, how to navigate the world outside their family, and issues of gender and sexual identity. Moreover, experts believe that today’s adolescents have lower resilience than in the past, which makes them more vulnerable to stress in school. Here are some of the reasons why depression in schools is so tough for teens to deal with.
Lack of coping skills: Today’s teens are more protected than in the past. Parents try to shield them from experiencing failure and disappointment. Therefore, teens often have fewer chances to build resilience. Thus, they don’t learn how to cope with challenges.
A brain that’s still growing: The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls self-regulation, is not fully developed in teens. Thus, they have a limited ability to exert control over their impulses. Consequently, this leads to teenage risk behaviors, such as substance abuse and unsafe sexual choices, which can negatively impact teen mental health.
Nature deficit disorder: Today’s adolescents spend so much time doing homework and on screens that they don’t get outside nearly enough. Nature deficit disorder is a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. It refers to the fact that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral and mental health problems, including depression.
The negative effects of social media: A large body of research links teenagers’ use of social media with increased teen depression. Social media seems to make typical adolescent concerns worse. There are more opportunities for teens to feel left out and compare themselves negatively with others. In addition, scrolling through social media is addictive, resulting in less time for activities that benefit teen mental health, like being outside, spending time with friends IRL, and expressing themselves creatively.
Let’s look more closely as some of these factors contributing to depression in high school.
Bullying and Adolescent Depression
Research has found that bullying and depression in school are often related. Victims of bullying in school are at greater risk for depression and suicide. According to the CDC, high school students who are bullied are up to 320 percent likelier to die by suicide. When schools reopened after pandemic lockdowns, teen suicides increased by 12–18 percent as compared to pre-pandemic levels. In the study cited above, researchers concluded that bullying in school was the most likely cause for the rise in teen suicides.
Harmful bullying between middle school and high school students is perpetrated virtually as well. In fact, some research indicates that cyberbullying is worse than in-person bullying. A study by the US National Institutes of Health found that victims of cyberbullying showed more signs of depression than other bullying victims.
Moreover, any association with bullying behavior is a risk factor for depression. Children who bully others have an increased rate of depression in school years and afterward. One study found that children who are bullied and those who do the bullying have an increased risk of depressive disorders later in life.
How Does Social Media Impact Depression in High School?
Today’s teens face perennial adolescent issues, as well as issues that were unknown to past generations. Among the biggest contemporary problems for teens are technology in general, and social media in particular.
Social media is a primary source of anxiety and pressure for adolescents. Teens become depressed when they compare themselves to their peers. Moreover, they feel they must uphold perfection on social media. Additionally, teen girls in particular often feel pressured by other students to share sexual images of themselves with male students, or to post such images online.
Ultimately, the focus on screens and social media causes damage to relationships, education, and extracurricular activities. Thus, it can contribute to teen depression, as well as ADHD, self-harm, body image issues, anxiety, another mental illness.
Depression in College
Depression in high school isn’t treated, it can continue as teens graduate and go to college. Stress in college can be even more intense than in high school. College students are dealing with many new situations. They are often living independently for the first time, and might not be taking good care of their physical health. Furthermore, they are typically facing a new level of academic challenge. Moreover, they may be exposed to more drugs and alcohol than ever before.
Consequently, depression in college is not uncommon. College depression statistics from a 2022 Healthy Minds study show that students’ mental health has steadily declined since 2013. Researchers found that more than 60 percent of students during the 2020–2021 school year met the criteria for one or more mental health problems, such as major depression and anxiety disorder. This represented nearly a 50 percent increase from the data sets drawn from 2013.
10 Warning Signs of Adolescent Depression
It’s important for teens and their friends and family members to know how to recognize symptoms of adolescent depression and other teen mental health issues. Here are 10 of the most common depression symptoms.
- Avoidance of social situations and a loss of interest in favored activities
- Exhaustion, constant fatigue, and a generalized lack of energy
- Sense of despair, sadness, and hopelessness (sometimes escalating into suicidal thoughts)
- Slipping grades and general lack of motivation
- Unexplained aches and pains, headaches, stomach problems
- Hard time concentrating (particularly for teens who used to be focused)
- Feeling worthless, irritable, frustrated, or having an extreme case of low self-esteem
- Disturbed sleep patterns (taking naps during the day, insomnia at night)
- Changes in appetite and weight (including not eating on a regular basis or binge eating)
- Abusing alcohol or drugs to cope with the pain as a form of self-medication
6 Strategies for Warding Off Adolescent Depression
1. Spend time in nature
Spending time in nature through outdoor therapy can improve mental health in a number of ways. For one, time outdoors has been shown to decrease levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Moreover, being outside in nature is proven to reduce stress by lowering the stress-associated chemical cortisol.
2. Meditation and yoga
An increasing number of studies show that mindfulness meditation can help support teen mental health. Meditation encourages us to witness our emotions from a distance rather than getting caught up in them. A review study at Johns Hopkins found that meditation was just as effective as antidepressants in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Research shows that exercise combats depression by increasing the body’s production of endorphins. These are the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. Moreover, doing a physical activity you enjoy can increase feelings of mastery and self-confidence. Therefore, choose something you like to do so that exercise won’t feel like a chore.
4. Reframe stress
We can turn distress into eustress, which means positive stress. A Harvard Business School study several studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance showed that people who reframed their anxiety as excitement performed better than those who told themselves to stay calm when feeling stressed. Think of stressful situations as opportunities to learn and find ways to cope with life’s challenges.
Whether or not you get enough sleep can have a big impact on mental health. Researchers have found that teens feel more depressed and anxious when they don’t get enough rest. In a study of nearly 28,000 high school students, scientists found that each hour of lost downtime was associated with a 38 percent increase in the risk of feeling sad or hopeless, and a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts.
6. Social support
Multiple studies have shown that social relationships improve mental and physical health. The more support we have, the more resilient we are against depression. Find people you trust who will listen to you and make an effort to understand what you’re going through. Your support network can include family, peers, guidance counselors, and mentors. A mental health professional can also provide support.
Tips for Parents
Encourage self-care. While your child is at home, help them instill healthy habits in terms of sleep, social support, and exercise. Hopefully, those habits will stick when the head off to college.
Listen carefully. Whether you’re talking with your teen at dinner or on the phone while they’re away at school, pay attention and watch for warning signs.
Don’t get angry. Instead of punishing your teen if you find out they’ve been having behavior or mental health issues, respond with compassion and invite them to share what’s going on.
Make sure they get professional help. If you’re concerned that your teen is depressed, have them talk to a school counselor, therapist, doctor, or another mental health professional with a specialization in adolescent psychiatry. It’s always better to address the problem before it gets worse.
Treatment for Depression in High School
Treatment for teen depression begins with a mental health evaluation by a trained professional. Specifically, this evaluation should take into account a student’s developmental and family history, school performance, and behaviors.
Once the evaluation is complete, teen depression can be addressed by a variety of therapeutic modalities:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps teens to identify and modify thought and behavior patterns, shifting them from the negative toward the positive.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) helps teens acknowledge the unhealthy behaviors they are using to cope with deeper underlying issues, and develop ways to modify these behaviors. This behavioral modification helps aleviate depression in school.
- Psychoeducation groups educate parents and teens on how the brain works, so they can begin to change their thought processes and increase overall mental health.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) combines acceptance and mindfulness strategies with commitment and behavior-change strategies to increase psychological flexibility.
- Attachment-Based Family Therapy and other forms of family therapy strengthen the emotionally protective parent-child relationship while promoting adolescent autonomy.
- Adventure Therapy helps heal adolescent depression by supporting teens to build self-esteem, learn lifelong skills, and form relationships with peers.
Treatment for High School Depression at Newport Academy
Our specialized teen treatment gets to the root of depressive symptoms, giving teens the healthy coping skills and authentic connection that improves emotional regulation and self-esteem. Our medical and clinical experts take a team approach, providing integrated care that addresses every aspect of an adolescent’s well-being. In addition, our family therapy component repairs ruptures in the parent-child relationship so teens feel safe turning to their parents for support when they are struggling.
At Newport Academy, we understand that sometimes the hardest part of seeking treatment for teen depression in school is taking the first step. Once you take that step, we’ll be here for you all along the way—not only throughout the treatment process, but also afterward, through our discharge planning team and robust Alumni program. We look forward to supporting you and your family on the path to healing.
Frequently Asked Questions
JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Feb;73(2):159-65.
PNAS. 2015 July;112(28) 8567-8572.
Health Technol Assess. 2015 Sep;19(73):1-124.
J Youth Adolesc. 2015 Feb;44(2):362-78.
J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Jun;143(3):1144-58.
Adolesc Health Med Ther. 2011; 2: 37–44.
J Health Soc Behav. 2010; 51(Suppl): S54–S66.
Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan;15(1):18-26.