Academic pressure linked to higher depression risk in teens

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A recent study published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health examines whether and how the need to achieve certain goals increases the risk of depression in adolescents.

Study: The association between academic achievement goals and adolescent depressive symptoms: a prospective cohort study in Australia. Image Credit: LStockStudio / Study: The association between academic achievement goals and adolescent depressive symptoms: a prospective cohort study in Australia. Image Credit: LStockStudio /

Depression and adolescence

Adolescence is a high-risk period for depression, with the prevalence of this psychiatric condition rising in many countries. In fact, one in seven Australian secondary school students are considered clinically depressed.

Many schools offer preventive mental interventions such as mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or psychoeducation that are easily accessible to all students. However, these methods have often failed to demonstrate significant efficacy in relieving depressive symptoms.

Other interventions that modify the school environment have also been proposed. Previous randomized trials have demonstrated that whole-school interventions that promote health and socioeconomic skills can reduce depressive symptoms among adolescents. Nevertheless, these approaches have been limited in efficacy due to a lack of understanding of which risk factors must be prioritized.

Achievement goals

Achievement goals, which are defined as cognitive representations that guide behaviors, have been identified as a modifiable risk factor for depression in adolescents.

Achievement goals can be further classified as mastery and performance goals. Mastery goals include those that students define as their success at developing understanding or skills, while performance skills reflect success defined by outperforming peers.

Mastery-approach goals imply that the student is interested in learning and developing competence. In contrast, mastery-avoidance goals refer to a student’s motivation to avoid incompetence in a subject or task, which may be due to the fear of being unable to learn or understand the topic.

Performance-approach goals refer to the drive to be better than peers, whereas performance-achievement goals are defined as a student’s desire to avoid underperforming and appearing incompetent.

Achievement goals and depression

Some psychological models suggest that people oriented towards achievement are more likely to become depressed, as they are often more focused on performance rather than mastery goals. Moreover, the inability to compete successfully with peers can lead to reduced self-worth due to feelings of inadequacy.

In contrast, mastery-orientation approaches drive students to learn more when encountering difficulties. For these individuals, self-worth does not depend on how well they perform, their level of competence, or whether they outperform their peers. Instead, these individuals positively adapt to the challenge and are less likely to become depressed.

These orientations may be successfully shifted by school culture and whether mastery or performance goals are rated higher. Randomized trials have reported lower anxiety, more physical activity, and improved confidence and competence with this type of intervention.

Only one study has explored how achievement goals affect depressive symptoms. To this end, a greater risk of depression was observed among 13-14- and 18-19-year-old adolescents with performance rather than mastery goals.

About the study

The current study sought to extend these findings by controlling for confounding factors and using a more representative sample of students. To this end, data was obtained from the National Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC).

The study cohort included 3,200 kindergarten participants recruited between four and five years of age. About 2,700 from the baby group were recruited in the first year of life. Students in both cohorts were equally split between government and non-government schools.

Depression and academic goals

Depressive symptom severity increased over time for both cohorts. In the kindergarten cohort, with each one-point increase in mastery-approach goals, there was a 33% reduced risk in depressive symptom severity scores, whereas a 30% reduction was observed in the baby cohort. With each corresponding increase in mastery-avoidance goals, a 35% and 44% increase in depressive symptom severity scores were observed within the kindergarten and baby cohorts, respectively.

In the kindergarten group, a one-point increase in performance-avoidance goals was associated with a 25% rise in depressive symptom severity scores. However, this did not correlate with psychological distress at 18-19 years, unlike that observed with mastery goals. No significant association was observed between performance-approach goals and the risk of depression in either cohort.


The findings from the current longitudinal national-level adolescent cohort indicate that depression among adolescents is associated with their achievement goals. Although this is an early study, its findings reflect the utility of evaluating school environment interventions for their emphasis on mastery-approach goals.

Mastery-approach goals should be taught and encouraged to foster mental health. Inevitably, these goals will promote personal growth, help form beliefs that practice will improve one’s abilities and skills, and help students adapt to both stress and failure. These approaches will also emphasize the importance of students comparing themselves against their past performances rather than those of their peers.

Curriculum, examination systems, the value attached to these factors in social and school cultures, and personal/genetic factors may contribute to adolescent achievement goals. Thus, future research is needed to determine whether focusing on mastery-approach goals at the school level, rather than a peer-based performance comparison, could prevent depression.

Journal reference:
  • Steare, T., Lewis, G., Lange, K., et al. (2024). The association between academic achievement goals and adolescent depressive symptoms: a prospective cohort study in Australia. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. doi:10.1016/S2352-4642(24)00051-8.
Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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