A gap year could be the answer to the student mental health crisis

Malia is onto something.
Malia is onto something.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Malia Obama recently announced that she will take a gap year before attending Harvard University. Historically, American high school graduates have been less likely to take a gap year than their European and Australian counterparts.

A study of “The American Freshman,” for example, indicates that only up to 3% of US students are taking a gap year before starting college. By contrast, as far back as 2004, over 11% of Australian students were doing so.

As researchers at Florida State and Temple universities, we have individually and collaboratively researched the impact of gap year experiences for several years. Gap years are now growing in popularity in the US.

Should we encourage more students to take gap years? What’s the evidence?

Student distress on campus

First consider this distressing—and relevant—trend on mental health of college students.

Studies have shown that there is a “mental health crisis” on college campuses in the US. Students are flooding college counseling centers at record numbers.

At any given time, approximately one third of college-aged students across all campuses are suffering from a diagnosable mental illness, such as anxiety or depression.

College itself can add new emotional, financial, and personal stresses, leading to increases in psychological distress among students. This is evidenced by a growing number of students seeking counseling services on college campuses.

The implications of these mental issues cannot be overstated. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health in a 2014 report, of the students seeking counseling services, more than 30% reported that they “seriously considered attempting suicide” at some point in their lives. This number is up from nearly 24% in 2010.

At the same time, faculty and staff are reporting that today’s students lack coping skills such as resilience and the ability to succeed independently despite adversity.

These observations are not just anecdotal. Evidence of students’ difficulty in finding independent success can be found in a recent study conducted by the National Student Clearing House Research Center. The study shows that only 52.9% of students who start a four-year degree program graduate within six years.

What does research say about gap years?

So, how can students take steps in order to better prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for starting college?

Research shows that a gap year—a year between high school and college—can provide students the opportunity to gain personal skills such as independence, resilience, confidence, and focus. A combination of activities during this year that involve volunteering, interning, or working, either domestically or internationally, can provide meaningful experiences that challenge students outside their comfort zones. These experience can help students reevaluate how they understand themselves and the world.

Several peer-reviewed studies focusing on students in the UK and Australia have shown that students who took a gap year experienced a host of personal benefits, such as higher levels of motivation and higher academic performance in college.

A 2015 survey of over 700 former gap year participants found overwhelming personal, academic, career, and civic engagement benefits associated with taking a gap year.

Over 90% of all respondents indicated that their gap year provided important time for personal reflection, aided in personal development, increased maturity and self-confidence, and fostered the development of interpersonal communication skills.

Specifically related to college, 73% of respondents reported that their gap year helped them increase their readiness for college, 59% said it increased their interest in attending college, and 57% said it helped them figure out what they wanted to study in college.

Students need more than cognitive ability

Gap year experiences have been shown to equip students to approach college from a place of increased mental stability. Research by one of us (Joe O’Shea) shows that gap years promote qualities such as resilience, tenacity, and grit.

Another 2014 research conducted by the co-author here (Nina Hoe) that analyzed in-depth interviews with gap year participants also came up with similar findings. 37 of the 42 study participants reported gaining non-cognitive skills such as sense of self, adaptability, confidence, gratefulness, patience, open-mindedness, maturity, and grit.

Rigorous academic research has proven that qualities such as grit, self-control, growth mindset, gratitude, emotional intelligence, social belonging, curiosity, and openmindedness are associated with all forms of success including academic, personal, financial, and physical.

These qualities can help students weather the storms of higher education and make it less likely that they will encounter mental health issues.

In a study measuring the same personal and noncognitive qualities listed above, such as grit and self-control, researchers Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and Charles Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that, “there is a scientific consensus in the behavioral sciences that success in school and beyond depends critically on many attributes other than cognitive ability.”

Not any gap year

However, one thing to remember is that not all types of delay or gap year experiences yield the same impact.

Gap years need to be properly designed so they can challenge students with new roles and perspectives that accelerate their growth as thinkers and citizens. Experiences that push students out of their comfort zones and allow them to explore new cultures and people from different backgrounds can create an impactful experience. They provide students an opportunity to reflect on a number of challenges and also allow for critical self-reflection that can root part of their identity in contributions to others.

For example, as gap year students shared in O’Shea’s research, they get an opportunity to ask questions such as, “Why didn’t I know my neighbors growing up, but the sense of community here is so much more intimate?” or “Teachers here are using corporal punishment in classes; should I?” or “Why are many girls not going to school here?”

In an ideal gap year experience, students get to develop actual relationships with people who are different from them. And when that happens, students can begin to see the world from different perspectives and learn about the complexity of social challenges.

What’s also clear is that a gap year can help better prepare students, emotionally and mentally, for both personal and academic success in college. Analysis of nationally representative data from the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, shows that overall, students who delayed college had overall higher GPAs in college as compared to those who did not delay.

With new understandings of the transformative power of gap years, we need to take steps to ensure all students can benefit from them. Expanding gap year education will help more high school graduates arrive at college equipped with skills they need to achieve both personal and academic success.

Gary Robinson, director of counseling services at Hartwich College, contributed to the piece.