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Nurturing integrity: How to support students under academic pressure

As May marks Mental Health Month in the US and Mental Health Week in the UK, it seems timely to turn our attention to the interplay between academic pressure, student mental health, and the risk of misconduct.

Libby Marks
Libby Marks
Content Writer

The impact of academic pressure on students’ mental health needs to be on every institution’s agenda. As May marks Mental Health Month in the US and Mental Health Week in the UK, it seems timely to turn our attention to the interplay between academic pressure, student mental health, and the risk of misconduct.

There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest a correlation between negative emotions and unethical academic conduct. At a time when student mental health is in crisis, educators have an opportunity to support students to better emotional well-being and improve academic integrity. But how?

In this article, you’ll find actionable advice on nurturing academic integrity in students at risk of misconduct due to academic stress. Before we begin, we’re mindful that discussions surrounding academic integrity don't inadvertently stigmatize individuals dealing with mental health challenges.

It's important to recognize that not everyone experiencing mental health concerns engages in academic misconduct – and that attributing unethical behavior solely to mental health struggles oversimplifies a complex issue.

However, fostering a supportive environment that promotes both mental well-being and academic integrity is essential to help students achieve their best work.

What is academic pressure?

Academic pressure is the feeling of stress and anxiety that most students experience during their academic life. For many, it can be a mild and motivating sensation, driving them to work hard and achieve their goals. But, for others, it can be crushing.

Students who experience academic stress may struggle with lower educational attainment, suffer from anxiety and depression, and drop out of education. This has long-term consequences for their mental health and ability to sustain employment, leaving both individuals and the economy counting the cost (Pascoe, Hetrick, and Parker, 2019).

What are the sources of academic pressure?

Adolescents, young adults, and even more mature students, are navigating a highly competitive landscape – from school exams and college admissions processes, to graduate schemes and the wider job market. From an early age, young people can feel their achievements define their entire future. Whether we mean it to or not, our society puts them under significant pressure.

Students may also feel pressure from parents, family, peers, and educational institutions to achieve specific academic standards. If they internalize these expectations, they may hold themselves to unrealistic standards, resulting in debilitating perfectionism and fear of failure. Pinch points in the year can include exams and assignment deadlines.

Add in the educational and social disruption caused by COVID-19 for a significant proportion of the current academic cohort and it’s clear why today’s students are so stressed out.

Of course, not all academic pressure on students comes from these sources. Failing to prioritize academic pursuits, overcommitment to extracurricular activities, and struggling with academic work can also cause pressure on students.

How does academic pressure affect student conduct?

When people experience intense academic pressure, they may resort to misconduct to relieve the stress and anxiety they’re feeling.

However, the relief can be short-lived. Misconduct can become a source of guilt and further anxiety – or create an expectation of ongoing high attainment – which exacerbates the cycle of pressure and unethical behavior.

Academic research and literature analysis have shown that academic stress can trigger academic misconduct (Ali and Aboelmaged, 2021) and that plagiarism can be linked to pressures and anxieties associated with the student experience (Lodhia, 2018).

More recently, researchers asked participants to rate 23 possible reasons for cheating on assignments. Feeling anxious or depressed were among the most strongly endorsed reasons for cheating (Ives, 2020).

The impact of academic pressure on students’ mental health

The links between mental health, academic pressure, and misconduct are complex. This article does not intend to imply that all students with mental health concerns will engage in misconduct, nor that misconduct is always a result of poor emotional well-being.

However, there is a proven link between students' stress and the propensity to unethical academic behavior. Understanding and addressing this empathetically will help institutions improve academic integrity and support students to achieve their potential.

High levels of academic stress and pressure can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In some cases, students may resort to academic misconduct, such as cheating or plagiarism, to cope with the pressure to perform well.

However, academic pressure on students can also result from mental health challenges, such as perfectionism and fear of failure.

Low mood can impair a student's judgment and decision-making abilities, putting them at higher risk of impulsive unethical behavior. It can also manifest as apathy or lethargy, causing them to procrastinate and delay their work, leading to misconduct to catch up at a later date.

Low self-esteem can lead students to doubt their abilities to succeed academically without resorting to plagiarism or other forms of misconduct.

Fortunately, there are proactive steps that institutions can take to address academic pressure, integrity, and mental health issues, to nurture academic integrity in students at risk of misconduct.

How to nurture integrity in students experiencing academic pressure

Academic pressure on students can be a positive and motivating force, so the idea isn’t to eliminate it. However, recognizing the long-term negative consequences of excessive academic pressure – and the correlation between mental health issues and academic integrity – it needs to be on institutions’ agenda.

A preventative approach is better than a punitive one when it comes to mental health. We recommend the following steps to support and educate students and resolve misconduct resulting from academic pressure.

1. Support students experiencing academic pressure

Advocate for better mental health support for students

Given the correlations between academic pressure, mental health, and academic integrity, student support services are integral to reducing the risk of misconduct.

In a survey from the Association of School and College Leaders, 98% of UK secondary school headteachers report having students who struggled with exams due to mental health issues – including anxiety (89%), stress (85%) and depression (80%).

A study by the American Psychological Association found 87% of US college students cited education as their primary source of stress – and Student Minds states that one in four students report having a diagnosed mental health issue while at university.

In this wider context, it’s clear that many ‘cheaters’ are actually deeply struggling students. As educators, student mental well-being needs to be a priority.

Encourage students to declare mental health support needs

3.7% of all UK university applicants now declare a mental health condition – up from 0.7% in 2011. However, according to Starting the Conversation, UCAS Report on Student Mental Health, of the estimated 40,000 students with an existing mental health condition who entered HE in 2020, over half chose not to share this information with their university or college.

Declaring a mental health diagnosis during the application process can ensure timely interaction with support services and help prevent students from experiencing worsening symptoms. Institutions should present the process of disclosure ‘as a positive and empowering step giving students independence and agency in managing their own mental health and wellbeing’, says UCAS.

Targeted action is required in subject areas with below-average declaration rates, where applicants may worry it will impact their chances of acceptance, such as medicine and dentistry.

Improve interaction between academics and support services

Given the interplay between academic pressure and academic integrity, student support services and academic departments must work closely together to ensure optimum outcomes for students.

However, research finds the two areas are often siloed or even in dispute. Student Minds research found that most academics understand that Student Services don’t communicate with them for confidentiality reasons. However, they are concerned that Student Service professionals don’t always understand issues of academic integrity and occasionally undermine academic credibility.

Various academic studies address the question of the ethics around student disclosures of misconduct to mental health professionals (Taylor and Wilford, 2013) and explore the limits of confidentiality when misconduct is declared alongside mental health crisis (Dickstein, 2011).

To help institutions tackle this challenge, Student Minds recommends regular communication and improved understanding between academics and Student Services through structured engagement, regular contact, and a shared sense of purpose.

2. Educate students on academic pressure and integrity

Provide support for managing academic pressure

Academic pressure on students is not always a result of family pressure or internalized societal expectations. It can also result from under-developed study skills, such as poor time management, procrastination, or failure to prioritize effectively. Institutions can help relieve academic pressure by providing training in these areas.

They can also provide students with self-access support tools for managing academic pressure and achieving their personal best – such as organizational skills, goal setting, stress management, resolving interpersonal conflict, study-life balance, the importance of exercise and sleep, and self-care.

Educate students on what constitutes misconduct

Recent research concluded that lack of education on academic integrity can indirectly increase its prevalence (Sbaffi and Zhao, 2022). Providing education on academic integrity can help students avoid accidental misconduct or plagiarism by providing clear guidelines to work within.

Institutions should:

Equip students with the tools for original work

Of course, students don’t just need guidance on what NOT to do. This needs to be balanced with training on conducting original research, proper citation methods, research ethics, information literacy, problem-solving, and creative thinking.

For example, research has found creative thinking has a positive impact on academic integrity, and education in creative thinking can reduce the occurrence of academic misconduct (Eshet and Margaliot, 2022).

Whereas, graduate students who lack innovative behavior may be unable to complete their academic tasks, leading to academic pressure, which then becomes a motivation for engaging in academic misconduct (Peng Su and Mu He, 2023).

3. Resolve academic misconduct fairly

Identify the root cause of misconduct

The causes of academic misconduct are wide-ranging and it’s important to ascertain whether students have engaged in unethical behavior due to mental and emotional health issues – or for other reasons. This will determine how you manage the allegation and reach a resolution.

For example, for students in a mental health crisis, it may be appropriate to implement an enhanced support package for students to minimize negative emotions and embrace academia with new enthusiasm. But for students engaging in misconduct for other reasons, it may be more appropriate to pair support and education with accountability measures and discipline.

Provide empathetic support for students suspected of misconduct

Some academics admit maintaining a ‘healthy skepticism’ about students’ self-diagnosis of mental health issues in the face of academic pressure (Student Minds). However, institutions must approach such matters with empathy.

Mental health statistics show that students are struggling more today than in the past – and it isn’t because they’re so-called snowflakes. Under the shadow cast by COVID-19, they’re navigating education and independence in a time of intense competition, economic uncertainty, and grade scrutiny.

Institutions need to understand the intense pressures students face to build trust with students and deal with misconduct in a way that improves student mental health rather than undermines it further.

Reinforce processes for misconduct linked to mental health

Balancing student/counselor confidentiality with the need for academic integrity is challenging. Research into misconduct disclosures from students experiencing mental health crises recommends four actions for improving how these situations are resolved.

  • For institutions to have a comprehensive set of processes and procedures that can withstand a legal challenge, plus multiple options for addressing student misbehavior
  • For administrators to be keenly aware of legal renderings such as student privacy issues and under what circumstances it is appropriate to release information to others
  • A well-trained, trusting, and collaborative multidisciplinary crisis response team
  • Committing time and resources to develop a systemic approach to resolving incidents of mental health crisis and misconduct

Key takeaways: How to support students under academic pressure

Academic pressure and student mental health are linked – and both leave vulnerable students at higher risk of academic misconduct.

Approaching this issue with sensitivity and empathy is essential so that educators can support at-risk individuals to achieve better well-being and higher academic integrity.

Timely mental health support can help students reduce their academic stress levels and risk of misconduct – which can lead to further improvements in self-esteem and emotional well-being.