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College Failure Not Linked to Depression

posted 12:05 AM EST, Mon March 22, 2010
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Most young people today imagine they’ll graduate from college and work as a professional in some field, but many won’t achieve this goal. Fortunately, new research out of the University of Florida suggests that trying and failing does not lead to increased rates of depression.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of high school seniors that believe they will earn a college degree – but fail to do so – over the last 25 years; a phenomenon known psychologically as ambition inflation. Are these people who fail to meet their academic expectations at increased risk for depression?

Although several psychological theories would suggest an increased risk of depression for those that fail to attain their goals in life – new research out of Florida State University indicates that trying and failing causes no additional risk of depression.

Professor John R. Reynolds led a team of researchers who examined rates of depression amongst 4300 participants of 2 national longitudinal survey studies, The National Longitudinal Study and The Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They found no increased rates of depression amongst those that failed to realize their academic goals.

This is good news, says Reynolds, explaining, "My previous research showed that teenagers are increasingly unrealistic about what they will be able to achieve. I wanted to see if there is anything wrong with that trend. Lots of theories predict that unmet goals will lead to frustration and anxiety. We were very surprised to find out that over-ambition is not a big concern, at least not from a mental health perspective.”

Reynolds advises parents to encourage college, arguing that college failure has little negative consequence and college success can lead to significant benefits.

The full research can be read in American Sociological Review and is titled, Is There a Downside to Shooting for the Stars?: Unrealized Educational Expectations and Symptoms of Depression

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