Increased anxiety in students

– what recent studies tell us

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought into sharp focus the issues of youth mental health and how schools, parents and the broader community can better understand and support this population cohort. IEU Victoria Tasmania Assistant Secretary Cathy Hickey takes a look at some recent research findings and recommendations dealing with youth anxiety, and points to some useful resources.

What’s happening to Australian youth?

YouthInsight, the market research arm of student advocacy service Student Edge has been undertaking regular surveys of Australian young people to monitor their understanding and sentiment towards the COVID-19 situation in Australia. Its survey in May this year of over 500 young people found that concern was starting to ease but remained high at 70 percent. In addition, 40 percent of young people are concerned about their mental health.

According to the research the top three issues causing concern for young people are the health of their family (64 per cent), their studies (61 per cent), and the economy (55 per cent). These top issues have remained consistent over the three surveys to that date.

Positively, the recent survey showed that more young people reported feeling happy than in previous YouthInsight surveys (up from 34 percent to 42 per cent). However, the majority of young people are still feeling depressed (56 per cent), anxious (57 per cent), and afraid (53 per cent) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. See table below.

Establishing school-based programs or community activities that increase peer connectedness may also help reduce distress, anxiety, and alleviate progression to suicidal ideation.

The organisation ReachOut provides digital mental health support for young people and has reported that they had seen a 50 per cent increase in demand in the first five weeks of lockdown. From the information collected through its research and online peer support forum they report that even as restrictions continue to ease, concerns shift from fear and anxiety to uncertainty about the future. There remain plenty of unknowns on the horizon for young people such as job security, financial and study stress.

For interested IE readers, the ReachOut website provides practical support, tools and tips for young people and their parents.

Global picture of youth anxiety

A separate global study by University of Queensland, through its Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) Life Course Centre, found that 14 per cent of teenagers are experiencing suicidal thoughts (ideation) and nine per cent have anxiety over a 12-month period. Mental health problems such as suicidal ideation and anxiety in adolescents are a major public health concern globally.

An important finding of the study is that while suicidal ideation and anxiety are prevalent among adolescents, there is significant global variation. Mental health issues are known to be under-reported in many low to middle income countries because of social stigma, religious or cultural taboos and inadequate health resources. Also highlighted is that 36 of the 82 countries that participated in the study have no specific health policy.

Researchers examined data collected from over 275,000 adolescents aged between 12 to 17 years across 82 low, middle and high income countries. Those most at risk were older teenage girls from low income backgrounds with no close friends. The study shows that while many adolescents around the world, irrespective of their country’s income status, experience suicidal thoughts and anxiety, there is a high variation between different continental regions. Teenagers from Africa had the highest rates of suicidal thoughts at 21 per cent, while the lowest was in Asia at eight per cent. The highest rate of teenage anxiety, at 17 per cent, was in the Eastern Mediterranean region, while the European region had the lowest rate at four per cent.

The study identified that a higher level of parental control was positively associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing suicidal ideation and anxiety. In addition, the odds of experiencing suicidal ideation and anxiety were higher among adolescents who had experienced peer conflict, peer victimisation, peer isolation and reported loneliness. Parental understanding and monitoring were strongly associated with reduced mental health problems.

Parental and peer support key

A key finding of the study is the confirmation that parental and peer supports are protective behaviours against suicide ideation and anxiety. Peer-based interventions to enhance social connectedness and parent skills training to improve parent-child relationships are critical. The report stresses that the strong association between parental and peer relationships on adolescent anxiety and suicidal ideation should inform national policies to improve population mental health. Culturally appropriate interventions that modify the parent-adolescent relationship and promote the adolescent’s individuation-separation whilst maintaining parental monitoring and understanding may also promote mental wellbeing in adolescents. Similarly establishing school-based programs or community activities that increase peer connectedness may also help reduce distress, anxiety, and alleviate progression to suicidal ideation. Adolescent suicide ideation and anxiety prevention strategies should include female specific initiatives, family and peer relationships which are sociocultural specific and sensitive.

Understanding Anxiety in Students

In the March edition of IE this year we featured an article written by IEU member Kathryn Harvey entitled Anxiety and Students.

In Harvey’s article she gave a comprehensive outline of what anxiety in adolescents looks like, its symptoms and causes. She highlighted that in Australia, one in 14 adolescents meets the diagnostic criteria of an ‘anxiety disorder’. She explained that intermittent and situational anxiety is normal and can occur prior to exams, public speaking, or when faced with a threat or danger. While anxiety can improve performance, for some individuals however, anxiety becomes excessive and significantly affects day to day living.

Harvey’s article outlined the 10 top signs of anxiety in students – emotional changes, social changes, physical changes, sleep difficulties, changes in school performance, assuming the worst, perfectionism, tantrums, school refusal and panic attacks, and explained that a worrying consequence of anxiety in adolescents and children is its negative impact long term.

IE readers are encouraged to refer to Harvey’s article which gives us hope in assisting our students with some practical ways to support them. She stressed that it is vital to be non-judgemental, calm, reassuring and most importantly, to listen – talk to students, tell them if you have noticed any changes and what you are concerned about. Let students know you are there to support them.

Other youth wellbeing resources

In this period of COVID-19 some very useful resources have been developed to assist schools and parents to support young people in dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues.

In a recent video presentation, Riding the Corona Coaster, well known expert Dr Michael Carr-Gregg explores how the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next may impact students, families and staff in school communities. He examines increasing concerns regarding mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse among young people, and emphasises the importance of promoting help-seeking behaviour and reducing stress levels at home. Carr-Gregg also provides tips for parents/carers on looking after their wellbeing during this challenging time.

Carr-Gregg presents us with some very sobering statistics which bring home why schools need to be employing student wellbeing staff and supporting their teachers and education support staff to develop skills and knowledge to support their students and the school community.

Did you know?

  • 33.7% of 15 to 19 year olds have a mental health issue
  • 92% of children and young people do not meet guidelines for physical activity
  • suicide is the biggest killer of Australian youth
  • only one in three teens are getting enough sleep
  • there has been a 20% increase in girls self-harming over the past decade.

  • Riding the Corona Coaster is one of the special reports available through the new online resource SchoolTV which is available to schools via an annual subscription. This online platform focuses on youth wellbeing and provides a raft of informative video presentations, including interviews with health specialists, case studies and other resources.

    References and resources

    T. Biswas et al., Global variation in the prevalence of suicidal ideation and their correlates among adolescents: a population based on 82 countries EClinicalMedicine (2020),

    K. Harvey, Anxiety and Students – what does anxiety look like and what can we do to minimise its impact on learning Independent Education March 2020