Let me start by saying, high school students, that I don't envy you. In fact, in my line of work, I find myself saying, "Wow! I'm so glad I went to high school when I did, and not today"... probably at least once per day.
On the one hand, you have more opportunities than any generation ever has -- from online learning to internships, study abroad opportunities, alternative semesters, and more. On the other, everything is harder now.
More people are competing for the same number of spots, and it's easy to feel hopeless, helpless... and even paralyzed by indecision. (There is such a thing as choice overload, after all.)
So it's really no surprise that there's a total major mental health crisis among today's youth. Palo Alto (Paly) and Gunn High School made national news last year, following a series of student suicides, and I know many students who have checked themselves into mental health facilities after experiencing troubling thoughts.
One thing we can all agree on: depression sucks.
And one reason it sucks is because, while it's often brought on by the stress of school... it's often the reason our homework and test scores fail to meet our expectations.
So how do you do well in high school when you're dealing with depression? How can you make your grades better when your mind feels foggy all the time and you basically have zero motivation?
Here are a few of my ideas.
1. Increase your feelings of autonomy, independence, responsibility, and agency -- by planning a trip!
In addition to running Paved With Verbs, I also blog about adult playfulness, happiness and leisure skill development (it spun out of my master's thesis). One of my most popular posts is For the Love of God, STOP Asking People If They're Okay! (Ask This Instead.), in which I wrote:
All of human interaction can be graphed on an X-Y axis, where X is communion (actions that show caring and bring us closer to others) and Y is agency (actions that establish power or authority.
By interesting coincidence, human depression tends to manifest itself in one of two ways: feelings of disconnection/low communion (e.g., "I'm lonely," "No one loves me," I don't have a single friend that I can confide in," etc.) and feelings of helplessness/low agency (e.g., "I feel helpless," "I feel worthless," "It's hard to get out of bed in the morning," etc.). Read more >
If you're someone whose depression manifests itself mostly in feelings of low agency, then my advice would be to find ways to increase feelings of autonomy, responsibility, independence and accountability in your life.
Spring break is coming up — so why not plan a trip or intellectual excursion? For example:
You can follow this advice, or come up with something else. As long as you're taking steps (big or small) that make you feel independent and empowered, you will clear your mind and lift your spirits. It won't directly lead to better grades, but it will help you start the next term out strong.
2. Make up for lost time and past mistakes with a great proposal -- while developing better relationships with teachers.
Your depression has had an effect on your grades, and you're worried that it's going to affect your chances of getting into a top school.
Turn your bad fortune into a chance to strengthen your relationships with your teachers — who, by the way, will be writing your recommendation letters someday -- while (hopefully) raising your grades, just a little.
Try putting together a proposal for a paper, project, or presentation. Then approach your teacher and say, perfectly honestly:
“I’ve been struggling with depression this semester. My motivation has suffered and my memory is often foggy. Sometimes, I read the same page two or three times without even realizing it.
I haven’t been producing work that I’m proud of, and that bothers me. I’m trying to turn that around.
I've written up a proposal for an extra credit project, which is a short-term solution. It combines my interest in (something you're interested in) with (topic you struggled with this quarter). Would you be willing to go over it and see if it's something you might consider averaging into my grade?
In the long term, I would like to come up with ways to avoid problems like this. Would you be willing to discuss different study skills and learning strategies with me? That way, I can stay on top of my school work, even when my mood is down.”
Even if the teacher says they won't count your project for extra credit, you should still do the project -- because, ultimately, your teachers' opinions about you are going to matter as much as, if not more than, your final grade in the class.
Teacher recommendations are a pain in the butt, both for the teachers who write them and the admissions officers who have to read them. They wouldn't ask for recs if they didn't care about them tremendously. (Read more in The Two Biggest Mistakes Seniors Make on Their College Applications.)
Moreover, having the chance to craft a proposal about something you want to work on will give you a sense of control and autonomy, and that is always a good thing.
3. Stop doing things that you're not doing for a reason.
Time is a zero-sum game. Every minute you spend doing something you don't care about, you're not doing something you do care about, and that is bad.
Not just because you're wasting your time and mental energy on something that doesn't matter to you... but also because sleep is super important.
When you don't get enough sleep, every good thing feels less good, and every bad thing feels worse.
(This is kind of controversial, but one psychiatrist's hypothesis is that the mental health problem in the Bay Area is caused by video games. Many students stay up late playing games, meaning they're more sleep deprived. And! Because video games are high-arousal and use lots of bright lights, your brain isn't really ready for sleep when you finally do decide to go to bed. Meaning you're getting less and worse sleep. Obviously mental health is more complicated than "video games," but there's something to this hypothesis.)
Doing less of what doesn't matter means doing more of what does matter. That can mean sleep, or it can mean spending time at church or with friends. Or it can mean doing that activity or solving that problem only you can solve.
I'm going to pick on community service, here, because that's one of the things I feel most students do without a good reason. And colleges see that and think, "Wow. This person does't want to change the world -- they just want to get into college."
As I wrote in Here's What Colleges REALLY Think About Volunteer Work,
Many students focus their energy on "what" they're doing -- community service, AP classes, varsity sports, etc. But one of the most important questions admissions officers have about you isn't "what" -- it's why?
Why are you doing what you're doing? Why is that an enriching experience? How will it help you accomplish your goals?
So let's apply this to community service.
What: You volunteer to pick up trash at a park every month.
What: You volunteer as a receptionist at a local hospital every week.
If you don't have a good "why," schools won't be hugely impressed by your service. They're looking for people who find and develop passions. They're looking for people who want to change the world. Read more >
The post continues by saying that it's kind of weird to just do random community service. Anyone can pour soup at a soup kitchen. Anyone can point patients to the right hallway in the hospital. So what can you do that others can't -- how can you use your skills and interests in a way that's meaningful (and therefore, fulfilling) to you?
For example, If you're studying Chinese, volunteer as a Chinese language tutor. If you're studying Chinese and you want to be pre-med, volunteer for the Asian Health Foundation. If you study Chinese and you like art, graphic design, or computer science, develop interactive displays, posters, websites and other materials that spread important information to the local Chinese community...
... And don't say your summer spent building schools in El Salvador "changed your life" if you went back to school and kept doing the same things you were already doing. If it truly changed your life -- show that it changed your life.
Take a Spanish for Medical Professionals course at a local community college. Volunteer for a labor or immigration groups. Join a grassroots effort to legalize drugs in your state, if you think that will make a difference to the orphans you worked with!
(That could actually be a super edgy and memorable college essay -- something to the effect of, "If I learned anything from working with orphans in El Salvador... it's that we need to legalize drugs in the United States." See also: If You're a Vegetarian Who Uses Illegal Drugs, You are THE HUGEST Hypocrite.)
But this isn't limited to community service. If you hate robotics, stop doing robotics -- or figure out a way to make it suck less. For example, if you feel like the parent and faculty advisors are too hands-on, establish some boundaries. Tell them that this is a student-run group, and you would prefer to have students do the initial brainstorming, role assignments, budget planning, etc.
If you love business and have no interest in AP Environmental Science, then don't take APES. Take a business elective or a leadership class. A student who takes classes they love is going to stand out at least as much, if not more, than a student who's simply trying to take as many APs as possible. However many you take, someone else will take more. And they're going to score higher on the exam. So focus on building your unique story and set of interests. That's a much better (and more fun, and less depressing) use of your time. (For more, check out APs Make You Look Complacent, Not Curious.)
The catch here is that, while it's probably a good idea to stop doing things you're not doing for a reason, you've got to replace them with something you are doing for a reason. Don't, in the name of "self-care," sit around the house all day doing nothing. (Unless the thing you're doing for a reason is getting eight hours of sleep per night -- which, in turn, will make you more alert in class, boost your creativity, and decrease your symptoms of depression.)
Remember: fun isn't the key to happiness. Purpose and meaning are.
4. Visit a study skills counselor.
Want to know something funny?
Some of the students with the worst study skills... are the students with the highest GPAs.
See, they were gifted. Their whole lives, they were able to get the top grades in every class without putting in much work -- without having to study much.
But once you start taking higher-level classes, that's going to change. (If it doesn't, you're taking the wrong classes or attending the wrong school.) Eventually, homework is going to start taking longer, and tests are going to require more preparation. And if you've never had to develop study skills and time management skills, you're not magically going to just have them when you enroll in that Honors class.
Part of the reason you're not getting the grades you want is probably because your study skills suck. But that's an easy, quick fix. Visit a study skills counselor. Talk to your teachers about the latest learning and memory research. Come up with a calendar and a strategy that works for you.
Seriously, it's super easy.
The hard part, of course, is sticking to your strategy even when you're feeling empty and depressed and alone. But it's easier to stick to a plan that exists... than one that doesn't.
5. Fire your tutor(s).
There's an old saying, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." But one of the many things I've learned by working with gifted (and privileged) young people is that many of you are way over-tutored.
Now, if you're legitimately struggling in a class, it makes sense to have someone helping you out. But having a tutor in multiple subjects -- especially if their main job is helping you with your homework -- can take its psychological toll. For example, it can:
The implicit message a tutor send is: "You can't do this on your own."
No wonder you feel helpless and hopeless! Getting rid of your tutor can help you demonstrate -- to yourself, and the world -- that you can do it on your own. Moreover, when you succeed, you'll attribute it to yourself, not your tutor.
Remember when I said you don't magically develop study skills when you need them? That you have to develop them with intentional practice over time?
Critical thinking skills are the same way.
Working through a tough math problem is hard. But if you have someone holding your hand and walking you through each step, you'll never figure out how to do it on your own -- which means you will feel dependent upon your tutor(s).
With someone walking you through each part of the problem, you'll never feel that sense of accomplishment, that sense of agency and mastery over your assignments. This could contribute to feelings of brain fog and depression.
Part of becoming an adult is taking accountability for your own actions. When you're over-tutored, this might never happen. When you do well on a test, you don't quite feel good about it, because it's not really a result you achieved on your own.
And when you do poorly, you don't have to feel too bad about it. I mean, it's not your fault! Your tutor didn't prepare you well enough!
When students don't feel a strong personal accountability for their grades, it diminishes the joy and pride they can feel at a job well done... and it diminishes the responsibility they feel for a bad outcome.
Which, again, exacerbates depressive symptoms.
We aren't born with the ability to deal with failure, disappointment and hardship. We learn it through experience.
But tutors insulate you from having to develop these skills. Instead of facing a disappointing academic outcome and asking themselves, "What did I do wrong? Did I really give it my best effort? What can I do differently next time?"... they rely on the tutor to figure things out for them.
But real life doesn't work like that. The more accountability you can take for your own actions, the more you can own your successes and failures, the more confidence and coping skills you will develop.
And, like, look. I know you might feel like you can't do it on your own -- especially since you're struggling with depression right now.
But I have faith. Once you thrust yourself into a position where you must do it on your own... you're going to surprise yourself.
6. Do at least one activity per week just for fun.
Texting your friends doesn't count -- but building a tree fort does! Mountain biking does! Painting does (did you know there's a FREE paint night every Thursday in Redwood City at the Cyclismo Cafe? It's sponsored by the Redwood City Parks and Art Foundation, and you can sign up here).
Want to share your passion for drumming or love of fan fiction? Teach a class with funding from the Palo Alto Think Fund (formerly the Bryant Street Garage Fund), or a similar teen grant opportunity in your area. Or... just commit to writing fan fiction or drumming in the park every week.
Playfulness is super important. Not only does it feel good -- but, in the words of renowned psychiatrist Stuart Brown, it "shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and reinvigorates the soul."
No, but seriously. The positive mental benefits of play are well-documented. There is a good reason for you to be playing every week. And, honestly, more and more colleges and graduate schools are asking applicants about their childhood and adolescent play behavior, because research shows that children who played more grow up into more creative adults.
These ideas are based on research, and/or case studies of real students. I encourage you to put them to the test! And if you have any ideas or strategies that have worked well for you, please share them in the comments! If you're interested, we could even talk about guest posting opportunities at Paved With Verbs or The Happy Talent!
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.