Helping SAD Students: Stressed, Anxious, and Depressed

Now here’s a cheery topic, –not!

But if you are working with students, one of your goals is to help the growing number  with anxiety.

Recent studies show that anxiety is increasing for students especially females. A new study looked at 19 other studies conducted across 12 countries. It found “an increase in anxiety and depression in teenagers across Northern Europe, the UK and China. The number of older adolescent girls suffering from mental health problems was double that of boys.” Similar studies in the US and Canada show that this is the most stressed generation since the 1930’s!

Why is this happening and what can we do about it!?

According to Maclean’s Magazine, “Statistics Canada’s 2006 Community Health Survey of Mental Health and Well-being revealed that people aged 15 to 24 are most likely to experience anxiety disorders, with 6.5 per cent reporting an anxiety disorder in the past year. Studies in Canada and the U.S. have also shown that about 30 per cent of post-secondary students suffer from a mental health or substance abuse issue, compared to 18 per cent of the general population.

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found “today’s college students suffer from anxiety and depression at a higher rate than every generation since the 1930s.”

Why are teens stressed?

According to Van Ameringen, a Canadian researcher at McMaster University, it may be timing. As the co-director of the anxiety disorders clinic on campus since 1985 he says, “Students are at the peak age of susceptibility. The university cohort is entering the age of risk for onset of psychological disorders,”

The first episodes of clinical depression, panic disorders and generalized anxiety typically manifest in the late teens or early twenties. When you consider students overwhelming stress writing exams to enter college and having to make life decisions late adolescents are overwhelmed.

Extra Difficult for Girls

Dr. William Bor from the University of Queensland provides the following reasons why twice as many females are affected than males:


  1. ‘There appears to be increasing school distress amongst girls as they negotiate their way through the last parts of their school careers ‘They face difficult choices and pressures and the modern education system appears to be more problematic for girls – so the issue there is the stress of making future decisions and how they cope with them.’
  2. Culture is also believed to have a significant impact on mental health issues within young women, who are well known to struggle with identity and appearance issues.’ Culture has high expectation on girls in terms of appearance and weight. There’s a lot of speculation about the pressure on girls in terms of early sexualization and concerns they have about body image.
  3. Increasing economic inequality, and that may be increasing pressures at school as well.’


Understand the SAD Connection

Stress: With teens less able to manage stress or having poor coping skills and with culture placing heavier stress on older teens than in previous generations students are buckling under the pressure.

Stress can come from many sources. One study found that teens were most stressed about doing well in school, what they will do when they finish high school, and the pressure of not having enough time.

Episodes of stress are usual. A manageable level of stress is healthy. Prolonged stress with no relief however puts a student in distress. Jenny described it as “being held under water and not being able to come up for air.”

Anxiety can be a clinical condition. A student can have social anxiety or generalized anxiety in every context. Teens and college students who I have worked with have found it difficult to identify why they feel anxious all of the time. However, they can identify the peaks of anxiety when they feel panic. These are often related to stressors like exams, performances, even a sports event.

Depression is one response to stress and anxiety. Overwhelmed by the emotional weight of these emotions a student can lose hope. The constant anxiety robs them of enjoying friends, family, and other things that they used to love. They may experience insomnia or just the opposite sleeping constantly. In this state everything can seem like a chore.

How to Help

Prevention is where to begin. Helping teens cope with stress better through healthy outlets like sleep, exercise, proper nutrition, and getting homework done are all good ways to help.

Youth ministry or parents can also stress teens out with our expectations.

Teens already feel pressure to do well in school. Helping them to get their work done instead of nagging them to get it done may be the better way to help. Our expectations of students can also be a source of anxiety. We want to uphold high standards but need to be careful not to load burdens on teens that they cannot bear.

Anxious teens may have underlying problems. They should see a doctor to make sure that there are no health issues. In some cases medication may be necessary. Counselling that helps students deal better with anxiety and depression may also be helpful.

Watch for signs of depression. Make yourself available to hear what they are going through. If depression lasts a long time consider a referral to a trusted counsellor.

Stress Anxiety and Depression can drag a student into a downward spiral where they feel hopeless. Trusted adults who are able to help relieve stress and coach students to deal better with anxiety made y be able to help them avoid the darkness of depression.

 Please comment.

What have you found helpful when working with students struggling with anxiety?

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Ron Powell


Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email