Performance pressure and depression in teens

Teenagers are increasingly pressurised to achieve in various dimensions of their lives, due to increasingly higher performance standards placed on athletes and learners. Whether on the sports field or academically, many teenagers are taught to believe that their inherent value and worth are based on how well they perform. This is a critical age of identity development, and during this period teenagers are very concerned with other people's perceptions about them. When performance is greatly rewarded with acceptance feedback, and poor performance is punished with rejection, the recipe for depression is put into place. Very negative and critical feedback from coaches, parents, teachers or peers that focus on devaluing a person only serves to strengthen the belief that "I'm only worthy if I perform". This means that teenagers may feel extremely pressurised to keep performing in order to keep a sense of self worth intact. If, being human, they cannot keep up with the demands placed on them, youngsters may use self depreciating language to think about themselves, such as "I'm not worthy or not good enough". This type of self talk leads to a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and despair which can trigger both depression and anxiety.

Adults and teenagers alike should be educated about the dangers of unrealistic demands and pressure placed on our youth. When teenagers fail at something, supporting adults like educators and parents need to keep in mind that it is human to fail on occasion and that failing does not make a person a failure. Failing may be a great learning opportunity if dealt with in a constructive manner. Parents can play a role to assist their children to select activities so that their teenagers can retain a healthy balance lifestyle as far as possible. During seasons of increased pressure, teenagers may need additional emotional support and encouragement. No person should have to endure extended periods of stress and pressure which can lead to depression, anxiety and eventual burnout.

In the unique stage of identity development, teenagers rely on feedback from the world to develop a sense of self. Those who perceive themselves to be rejected by their peers or important adult figures are particularly vulnerable to depression. If the depression is not addressed and a negative spiral self-depreciating thoughts are nurtured, these teenagers may see their lives as pointless and meaningless. This is when teenagers are at high risk of viewing and acting on suicide as a way to escape the emotional pain that accompanies such thought patterns.

Written by Dr Ingrid Artus