How Education is Failing Mental Health

We are in the midst of a mental health epidemic. According to the World Health Organization, depression is now the world’s most widespread illness. More people die from suicide than from wars, terrorism or any other kind of violence. Think about that.

Every single one of us — at one point or another — has felt the burden of our negative thoughts and emotions. Whether we label it or not, many of us have been prone to symptoms of crippling anxiety, depression and overwhelming existential crises. We have all had to deal with the lows of life, love, and death. To a certain extent, such human suffering is a meaningful part of life — a critical component of the balance of nature. But if allowed to grow and overwhelm us, it can contribute to a lifetime of unhappiness and despair.

There are many contributing factors as to why we are experiencing this global mental health crisis. No single cause or explanation will adequately explain the issue. In fact, it will require insights from psychology, neuroscience, history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology to fully understand why so many of us are so mentally distressed. But one debilitating factor is — without a doubt — the failings of our traditional educational systems.

Photo credit: Ella Baron, The Guardian.

In a series of achingly relatable illustrations, Ella Baron captures the first-person experience of a student going through college suffering from anxiety and depression. These painfully beautiful visual narratives capture the misery of many of our students and highlight the desperate need for educational reform. This curation by the Guardian Magazine was motivated by the fact that the number of university dropouts due to mental health issue trebled last year. College freshmen mental health in the United States is at an all-time low. Suicide rates nearly doubled amongst UK university students to reach all-time high.

Demand for mental health resources and counsellors is exploding across universities around the world. While many students experience psychological distress, only one in six students experiencing mental distress receive minimally adequate mental health treatment. Many are criticizing major institutes for not providing their students with the required resources or treatment — and rightfully so.

But that’s not enough. It’s not enough for us to simply ask ourselves how we can help the students in need — but we also need to ask the very simple and critical question: Why are so many of our students so terribly unhappy to begin with?

How Higher Education Fails our Minds

The current status of our university students’ mental health is nothing short of a tragedy. Learning — in its truest essence — is supposed to be a fulfilling life-long journey of exploration, discovery, and self-improvement. There is so much awe, wonder, and knowledge to be gained in our world. There are so many global grand challenges, calling out to young leaders and innovators to solve them. But how many of us can say that for the most part, our formal education was exciting, fulfilling and empowering? How many of us would come home from school or university feeling invigorated? How many of us were truly happy at school?

Not enough of us feel that way when we think about the word “school” and here are a handful of reasons why:

Emphasis on grades, jobs and other external rewards.

For the most part, students in university are forced to be driven by the grades and the eventual desire to, one day, be employed. In formal education, not learning or not getting the right grade (the two are not always equal), has it’s consequences. At a very fundamental level, it is driven by extrinsic rewards. However, there is no denying that true joy and fulfillment comes from the intrinsic reward, doing because you love the experience — as opposed to the extrinsic end reward. Yet, we’ve stripped our students from the intrinsic experience by having the primary form of reward be grades and jobs.

Increasing costs and tuition.

The idea of possibly missing an assignment or failing a class can have an overwhelming burden on students when they’ve paid thousands of dollars in tuition. Student debt has already surpassed credit card debt for years now and costs of higher education continue to rise. This surge in tuition fees has already led to an increase in students seeking counseling. In a world where access to information, online resources and collaboration tools are becoming digitized and increasingly affordable — there is no justifiable excuse for rising tuition costs.

Overwhelming workload.

Many university students are put through severe stress and overwhelming amount of assignments — with very little time left to spend on their well-being or even indulge in full-filling activities, such as reading for pleasure. Many students go through hours of lectures and class during the day — followed by hours of studying and assignments in the evening. Studies have found student exhaustion levels to be “extreme” when compared with those of traditional high-exhaustion occupations.

Bad Teaching

Most major research universities have faculty that have been primarily hired as researchers, and are educators on the side. Yet, research and education constitute two very different — and not always complementary — skill sets. It is as simple as this: researchers are not necessarily qualified to be educators. Our educators should have the social, pedagogical and presentation skills required to inspire our students. They should be trained to present knowledge in captivating narratives, make complex ideas engaging, and, more importantly, relevant. They need to be committed to keeping up with the trends and latest findings in learning science. They are responsible for the minds of young ones who have paid thousands of dollars for the opportunity to learn from them and at the very least, they should deliver our students’ monetary value. It is simply not acceptable that so many professors continue to deliver mediocre presentations, bore their students and not connect with them at a personal level. We need to hold our educators to a much higher standard.

Emphasis on passive learning.

The traditional lecture style lesson is not ideal for retention and in fact, an inadequate teaching method from a purely pedagogical perspective. Even more, in such a learning environment, the students are passive receivers of information. For the most part, the information is eventually forgotten and even worse, most students do not get the opportunity to apply it in a real-life context. Hours of cramming later, students are left wondering why they needed to know all of that. Learning can feel like a meaningless and purposeless chore — especially after a couple of semesters of learning, passing exams, and forgetting all the information in the following semester. In contrast, a project-based, active-learning process can give students a greater sense of purpose, control and fulfillment.

Not enough focus on the things that matter.

Even if we don’t believe that the failing of formal education has a significant role to play in rising mental health issues amongst students — at the very least, we must admit that we aren’t equipping students with the resources, mindsets and support to cope through difficult times — whatever the cause of it. We spend too much time drowning them in exams, assessments and “weed-out” classes, and not enough time guiding them to find true happiness, meaning and purpose in life. We spend so much time putting them in stressful courses, and not enough time helping them find inner peace. We spend so much time limiting them for their grades, and not enough telling them that a single letter could never define their true worth.

How many of our students are exposed to educational tools that teach them how to cope with stress, how to find the things that make them happy, how to develop their emotional intelligence or even, how to build meaningful relationships? Consider the School of Life, a superb educational initiative focused on developing emotional well-being through ideas and discussion. The online YouTube channel explores questions such as: self-compassion, how to find fulfilling work, why we’re fated to be lonely, the dangers of thinking too much, anxiety attacks and much more. One can’t help learn about these issues and wonder; why wasn’t I taught this in school?

Photo credit: Ella Baron, The Guardian.

Moving Forward: A Complete Overhaul

Many of our students feel broken. Yet, the truth is that our students aren’t broken. The system is the one that’s broken and our students are simply victims of it. With an overwhelming workload, surging tuition, increasingly irrelevant curricula, bad teaching and emphasis on extrinsic rewards — how can we expect our students not to be depressed and anxious? It’s only inevitable.

As student loan debt surpasses credit card debt to leave many graduates unhappy, educational institutions have a moral obligation to provide students with a learning experience that gives them their money’s worth and to stop pushing them on the verge of mental breakdowns. If you go to a masseuse and they break your bones, you’d probably press charges. If you order a phone and it comes in broken, you get upset and return it. The same philosophy should apply to how we hold our educational institutions accountable for the kind of dispiriting learning experience they give us.

Many of the failings discussed in this articles are based on the very foundations that we build our no-longer relevant and industrial-era-inspired educational systems. In order to ensure that we address these failings and allow our students to have more fulfilling learning experiences, incremental changes are no longer enough. We need a complete overhaul of how we do things.

Ultimately, our education system is a direct reflection of our values as a civilization. What and how we teach future generations will have a powerful impact on the kind of world we live in. Positive solutions to mental health issues in educational campuses can have a positive ripple effect on society at large. A revolution in education is long overdue.