ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / Preparing for College / Supporting Student Mental Health

Supporting Student Mental Health

GP 1 copy
Written by George Philip (GP) LeBourdais | Feb. 13, 2023

How Passion Projects, Positive Storytelling and Portfolios Can Encourage Resilience

The following is an excerpt from Polygence’s white paper Paths to Resilience. Download the full article below to learn more about how passion projects can support resilience and improved mental health.

Key Takeaways

  1. Young people are experiencing an ongoing crisis of mental health.
  2. Embracing passions and telling positive stories about ourselves is a proven way to combat emotional challenges and develop resilience.
  3. Practicing self reflection by writing essays or building portfolios can help students find meaning beyond their academic achievements.

The State of the Youth Mental Health Crisis

In January 2020, researchers from Yale University published an alarming report about the mental state of US secondary students.

The nationwide survey of 21,768 high schoolers from Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Child Study Center discovered a large majority–nearly 75%–had negative feelings about their time at school. “It was higher than we expected,” said co-author and research scientist Zorana Ivcevic about the results. “We know from talking to students that they are feeling tired, stressed, and bored, but were surprised by how overwhelming it was.”

In hindsight, these findings may seem trivial next to the emotional and physical impact of Covid-19, which warped the entire world in the following months and years. The public health effects continue to be dizzying, but students have suffered acutely. In October 2021, alarmed by “soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families,” the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a “state of national emergency.”

And yet as coronavirus closures ebb more than two years later and something resembling pre-pandemic school returns, stress, anxiety, and depression still affect secondary students at epidemic levels. Things did not improve in 2022. A New York Times survey of school counselors across the country this spring found that nearly all of them (94%) reported that students were showing more signs of anxiety and depression than before the pandemic.

Yet while student stressors have worsened over the past few years, the root causes of them clearly run deeper than Covid and remote schooling. The rise in stress correlates with steadily decreasing acceptance rates at top schools. In 2011, a student applying to Ivies might have considered the University of Chicago a safety school with a 34.9% acceptance rate; its admission rate last year was 6%.

The pressure to gain acceptance to a good college can turn academic life toxic; students from high-achieving schools “suffer from symptoms of clinical depression at rates three to seven times higher than normal”. For their part, schools, districts, and colleges have grasped the urgent need for increased counseling support and mental health resources. However, staffing shortages often force them to triage students in crisis before attending to subclinical individuals who need more modest interventions. Which leaves us to ask: What can be done on a pedagogical level to address these issues? What changes to the structure or goals of academic work could make students more resilient and fulfilled?

In a white paper analyzing Harvard admissions data, researchers at Polygence.org established how research and passion projects enhance college applications. We now turn our attention to the personal and psychological values of such work, namely how engaging in projects can have a tangible impact on academic success and emotional well-being.

Empowering Students to Steer Their Own Educational Paths


One of many serious psychological tolls of the pandemic is the sense that we no longer have control over our lives. Covid has disempowered us in many ways. Political clashes around public health mandates are one expression of this frustration, but so is the tattered fabric of academic life. Sweeping changes to standardized testing, for instance, upended the way many high school students prepared for college applications. And though eliminating SAT requirements could help thousands of U.S. colleges usher in new levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity, it has also worsened a sense that admissions decisions are unpredictable and arbitrary. How can students put their best foot forward when the grounds for judgment are themselves unstable?

Responding well to these changes is perhaps the definition of resilience, known in psychology as the process of adapting to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. And research has shown that building resilience depends in large part on mindset. For her Polygence project on Coping during Covid-19, Isabel Wang explored a psychological concept known as the Locus of Control (LOC) in a survey of fellow high school students. The results, which earned Wang recognition as a Regeneron Science Competition winner, were both intuitive and eye-opening. Wang’s data suggested that students who have a high internal LOC–meaning that they believe their own decisions guide life outcomes–coped much better with the ever-changing ambiguities of Covid than those with a high external LOC, who thought external events dictated their outcomes.

Other research supports Wang’s findings. In a broad survey of students during lockdown, the research arm of the textbook and tutoring company Chegg found that 53% of high school students said they were “moderately,” “very,” or “extremely” worried about their mental health. One third reported experiencing depression, and almost a quarter (24%) said they knew of someone with suicidal thoughts. As these numbers suggest, the external forces that dominated adolescent life during Covid–from public health protocols, to changing school rules, the suspension of whole athletic seasons, restrictions on socializing, etc.–can severely erode internal LOC, and by extension our ability to cope with challenges.

It’s for good reason, then, that experts in curriculum design and administration have advocated for changes that put the power of decision back into the hands of students. Recent advice from Cathy Vattertot and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development endorsed, among other things, giving students “more autonomy in learning” and “control over their time.” This advice is logical; for students to feel they control their future paths, they must have final say in which direction to go.

For their part, mental health professionals can also help young people to develop skills that can improve their overall mood and happiness, especially through activities that are personally meaningful to them. As Clinical Psychotherapist Michelle Terry has written, “Teens are increasingly searching for and engaging in positive outlets to manage mental health. By doing so, they are demonstrating an impressive ability and desire to be their own best advocates and active participants in their mental health and well-being.” As her own daughter demonstrated through research on the power of dance therapy in adolescent mental health, projects that tap into a young person’s passions can play a powerful role in supporting positive academic and emotional outcomes.

“Parents always ask me, ‘What’s the number one ingredient to set my children up for success?’ I always say self-confidence…A strong sense of self and importantly self-confidence will empower young adults to find and nurture their passions. For me, there’s nothing better than watching my clients realize their full potential by acting on their passions and making a positive impact on others.”

Results from our research mentorship program at Polygence provides an example of how passion projects like these can also improve student emotional perceptions of school and their academic trajectories. Responses to a post-program Academic Outlook survey of more than 1,000 alumni indicated the experience made them feel more empowered and optimistic on several fronts. 84% agree or strongly agree that doing an independent project helped them feel more in control of their education, and the same percentage said (agree or strongly agree) that their mentor helped them feel more optimistic about their academic future. These sentiments are likely driven not just by personal connections but by the acquisition of tangible skills. 73% of Polygence alumni strongly agreed that their project let them do things they wouldn’t have had the chance to do in school, and 88% found that things they learned on their independent projects would help or have already helped them succeed in college.

It’s worth noting that these students did not select specific courses or even follow predetermined curricula when working with mentors. They received no grades for their work and had flexible deadlines. Each topic was identified by the individual student as something they cared about and the development of the project revolved around their own goals and self assessment. While there are merits to other pedagogical models as well, empowering students to control their own explorations at appropriate times has many positive outcomes.

Polygence mentorship program statistics

Keep Reading

Read the whole white paper from Polygence to learn more about how passion projects can support resilience and improved mental health .

Written by

GP 1 copy

George Philip (GP) LeBourdais

George Philip (GP) LeBourdais is a former high school teacher, Fulbright Scholar, and the Head of Strategic Initiatives at Polygence, a research program for high school students.. He holds an BA cum laude from Middlebury College, an MA with Distinction from Williams College and the Clark Art Institute, and a PhD from Stanford in the History of Art & Architecture. At Stanford, Dr. LeBourdais also worked for Stanford’s Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning to help instructors across the university improve their teaching. Before joining Polygence, he held a two-year postdoc as the Research Program Manager at Stanford’s Digital Humanities lab, the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis.

More on Preparing for College

See all

Moving Away from Home for College: The Tales of an International Student in Boston

Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, I was used to small-town living. I attended an international boarding school as a day …


2023 AP Exam Score Distributions

This year’s AP Scores have been released and Trevor Packer, head of the Advanced Placement Program has shared the details of this…

SummerApply_Article Headers

10 Summer Programs Still Open For Applications

Summer is here, marking one of the best times for motivated high schoolers to enroll in summer programs where they can diversify …


Summer STEM Prep: Start Strong and Avoid These Common Pitfalls

College-level STEM programs are notoriously rigorous, and getting off to a strong start can make a huge difference for students w…


A Solid Résumé is Worth the Effort for More Reasons Than You Can Imagine

Building a strong personal résumé in your first years of high school is recommended by counselors, college & university admis…

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!
Find Your Scholarship

Want to find money for school that doesn’t need to be paid back? Access insights and advice on how to search and apply for scholarships!

Search for Scholarship