Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than those at lower achieving schools:

In the 1990s, [Suniya] Luthar was studying the effects of poverty on the mental health of teenagers. In research with inner-city youth from families well below the poverty level, she found high levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Then one of her graduate students challenged her by suggesting that these problems might not be limited to children in poverty, so she began conducting similar research with teens in affluent suburban areas. Remarkably, she found that levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (including alcohol and hard drugs) were even higher among these presumably “privileged” young people than they were among the teens in poverty (Luthar & Latendresse, 2005).

In subsequent research, Luthar and her colleagues found that the most significant variable in predicting such problems is not family wealth per se but attendance at a high-achieving school (HAS). They found that the suffering among students at HASs is not limited to those from wealthy families (Ebbert et al., 2019). Students from families of more modest means at such schools also suffer. What matters is the degree to which the young people feel their self-worth depends on high academic achievement and success at the extracurricular activities, such as varsity sports, promoted and valued by the school.

In one study, encompassing nine high achieving schools, some private and some public, they found rates of clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression that were six to seven times the national average for people in that age range (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020). They also found that the cause of these problems, for students at HASs, was very different from that for students in poverty. While students in poverty struggle for physical safety and survival, HAS students suffer from intense, unrelenting pressure to achieve (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020).

Longitudinal research has revealed that the harmful effects of attending a high-achieving high school continue well beyond graduation. One study showed that rates of clinically significant alcohol and drug dependence, among graduates of HASs, were two to three times as high as the national average throughout college and for at least several years beyond (Luthar, Small, & Ciciolla, 2018). One very long-term study, begun in the 1960s, revealed that graduates of highly selective high schools were performing more poorly, at follow-ups 11 years and 50 years later, than were graduates of unselective schools matched for socioeconomic background of their family of origin (Gölner et al, 2018). Those who had gone to unselective high schools were not only psychologically healthier but were making more money and were more likely to be in high-status jobs than were those who had gone to selective schools.


  1. VXXC says:

    O/T but Turkey continues to lead in Drone Warfare.

    Mostly it was successful loitering and not being defeated by air defenses or electronic warfare, allowing other systems such as air strikes and artillery to take out the enemy. Success most pronounced in Nagorno-Karabakh, however also in Syria, Libya.

    I think the commoditization of chips and the easy access to knowledge and skills from the internet is beginning to tell for mankind. IOW smaller powers can now leap ahead where before it was industry, steel, oil.

  2. Green Hoyos says:

    See, I wonder if there’s a valley here, because it’s not like the worst off schools don’t have serious problems like this I imagine.

  3. McChuck says:

    Wow, imagine that. Stress-related/relieving behaviors are correlated with stressful situations. Who’da thunk it?

  4. Bomag says:

    I recall an older theater critic reflecting that the top stars are the unhappy ones; the second tier performers are more based and satisfied.

    Plenty of early deaths among movie stars who seemingly had all possible success. The drive to excel can overwhelm the feedback loop.

  5. Felix says:

    Non paywall URL for one of the referenced papers:

    It seems their input mechanism is self-report questionnaires from the kids.

    Like a lot of “science” papers, the paper is all interpretation. Pre-github. No data. Like: How many questionnaires were left blank or were clearly bogus noise from kids having fun or being suspicious.

    The paper says eating with a parent is good.

    They emphasized that rich kids tended to have families that hid troubles, implying that might skew results. Kinda implied contrast: Opposite skews that might come from rich families having the money (and culture?) to support expensive psych labeling.

    Peer pressure gets some text. Pretty girls being the “popular girls” in the rich schools, for instance. And “substance abuse” being admirable in the popular rich boys. Sounds like Hollywood teen shows are mirrors. :) Or vice versa.

  6. Vetrani Sui Sunt Circuli says:

    “Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.”

    I’ve met their parents. Who rule over us. So…GOOD.

    This is the most cheerful thing I’ve read all day. Thank you, Isegoria!

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