Battling ‘achievement culture’ to confront the Youth Mental Health Crisis

Content warning: This article contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is in need of mental health resources, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

Achievement culture is one of the factors driving a mental health crisis among college students, according to panelists at a Monday discussion on mental health for COMM 159B: Shaping America’s Future: Exploring the Key Issues on Our Path to the 2024 Elections. 

The panel, moderated by Jim Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media — an organization that promotes safe technology for children — consisted of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Yale Professor Laurie R. Santos, Daily staffer Tammer Bagdasarian ’24, Andrea Kitahata ’24 and Sophie Szew ’26.

Santos said that she first witnessed youth mental health problems when she began teaching at Yale. As the head of a residential college on campus, she checked in with students regularly and “saw youth mental health problems up close and personal,” she said, calling it a “real crisis.”

Santos’ feelings are backed up by the 2019 National College Health Survey, which found that over 50% of students feel hopeless and very lonely. The study inspired her to create the now-famous Happiness class in an effort to teach college students how to lead mentally healthier lives.

Murthy echoed Santos, adding that college students — especially those at elite institutions — often chase “the false gods of success: money, wealth and power,” in pursuit of happiness and security.

“We think that checking a set of boxes will make us happy, but it doesn’t,” Murthy said, referring to prestigious internships and jobs college students often pursue.

The speakers stressed the urgency of addressing mental health challenges in college students, describing tangible steps that could help mitigate the worsening crisis. Murthy said that the primary reason why the U.S. has failed to address the crisis already is that the dialogue around mental health not only requires “changes in policy but also culture.”

The speakers brought up achievement culture and increasing social media use as some of the major contributors to loneliness, anxiety and a host of other mental health concerns faced by students. “College students are constantly stressed about grades determining their success,” Santos said. She encouraged the audience to reflect on how they could change their perceptions of what defines being a successful student.

Murthy reflected on his experiences as a student chasing perfect GPAs and scores, adding that it took him “a meaningful encounter with a cancer patient the same age as me to realize how I really wanted to spend my time and break out of the achievement culture.”

Panelists agreed on another contributor to the mental health crisis: the abundance of negative news. Bagdasarian said that he first engaged with mental health resources when he was tasked with covering the suicide of Katie Meyer as a reporter for The Daily. “We had a team of psychiatrists and media that helped guide us, but we realized that most student newspapers don’t have that,” Bagdasarian said, adding that this motivated him to create a training program for student journalists on how to cover sensitive mental health issues. 

Kitahata, Meyer’s friend and teammate, added that her “passion for helping student-athletes navigate their niche mental health struggles” and motivation to begin advocating for improved youth mental health also stemmed from Meyers’ death. 

Both Murthy and Santos stressed the importance of good health practices, like sleeping and socializing well, to maintaining good mental health and encouraged students to reflect on what they truly value.

“Part of the challenge we find ourselves in is a moral crisis,” Murthy said. “We need to define the core values that anchor our communities.”

Bagdasarian previously served as an executive editor, news managing editor and senior staff writer for The Daily.