And what they do to cope.

By Samantha Zabell
Updated August 11, 2015
stressed student at desk
Credit: John Fedele/Getty Images

High school can undoubtedly be challenging—from college preparations, to social anxieties, to athletic competitiveness, students are under a lot of stress (and so are the parents). Previously, researchers have thought of these pressures as sources of "good stress," but new research from New York University shows that a growing number of high school students are developing chronic stress, which could be stunting academic success and causing serious mental health problems.

"We are concerned that students in these selective, high pressure high schools can get burned out even before they reach college," study leader Noelle Leonard, PhD, said in a statement.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, examined stress levels in high school students, contributing factors to stress, and the various coping mechanisms students employ. They studied 128 high school juniors at two private schools in the Northeast, mainly because private schools are under-studied environments, and students at these schools have "a unique set of pressures, expectations, norms, and resources." The rationale behind studying eleventh-graders is obvious: Junior year is crunch-time for college preparation. They also interviewed school staffers—like teachers and counselors.

They found that 48 percent of students reported having at least three hours of homework every night, and 49 percent reported "a great deal of stress" on a daily basis. Females were 40 percent more likely to have more than three hours of homework per night, and also reported higher levels of daily stress. Girls also had a higher average GPA—3.57 versus the boys' average of 3.34—and reported higher academic motivation. The study found that much of the pressure to perform well academically came from parents. A teacher at the school speculated that because tuition is expensive, parents expect a tangible result—not only a diploma, but also an acceptance letter from a top-tier university.

In response, private schools have increased class difficulty and extracurricular requirements, in addition to the various resume-building activities students take on to make themselves stand out to college admissions officers. No wonder students felt mentally exhausted—in fact, "they felt they were asked to work as hard as adults, or even harder."

To cope, researchers found that students listened to music, played computer games, or participated in sports. Some strategies that emerged weren't so healthy—researchers also saw students succumb to emotional exhaustion as a coping mechanism, where they "lose the ability to function" and spend time alone or sleep. On the other end of the spectrum, more than two-thirds of students reported coping with stress through substance abuse—mainly through alcohol and marijuana. In the 30 days before the survey, 38 percent of students reported getting drunk, and 34 percent reported getting high.

In addition to leading students to illicit substances, stress can also trigger mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. But researchers found that parents were much more anxious about taking children to a mental health professional, and worried about the associated stigmas more than students did. One of their main concerns was that mental health treatment would label their students and prevent them from attending their dream college. While schools have begun to help students manage stress in the classroom—by staggering exams or providing opportunities for meditation—they could do more to educate parents.

“Schools have an opportunity to engage and train families on ways to increase their capacities to serve as resources for their children," said Leonard. "...and engage families and students in a dialogue about expectations for achievement and a wider definition of success, all of which may allow students to fully participate in the richness of the private school environment.”