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The Mental Health Impact of Gap Year

The Mental Health Impact of a Gap Year

By Jesse Viner, M.D.

Taking a gap year — a year off between high school and college — isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that has certainly gained more attention recently due to Malia Obama’s decision to take one before starting Harvard University.

When talking about gap years, it’s important to note that we’re not talking about 18-year-olds who decide to lounge around and play video games for a year. A true gap year involves an experiential learning activity, like traveling, volunteering, mastering another language, interning or working. Learning through action and experience is a crucial mode of personal growth for emerging young adults.

The expense involved varies significantly based on the chosen activity. For instance, sending a student abroad can be an expensive option for many families, but paid internships and jobs can make a gap year feasible for all income brackets.

Beside the obvious benefit of giving students a break after the stress of high school, gap years can be a real asset when it comes to mental health. Around one-third of college-aged American students reported experiencing depression in the year prior to the 2013 National College Health Assessment Survey and almost half experienced overwhelming anxiety. Gap years can give students the tools they need to start off college prepared for the challenges ahead. Among the specific benefits:

A stronger sense of identity

Students just leaving high school often don’t have a clear idea of who they are and where they want to be as independent adults. Research by Thinking Beyond Borders shows that gap year students develop a dramatically improved sense of purpose and direction for their studies and careers.

Exposure to new activities, people and ideas can help students gain a better understanding of what drives them personally. They start to become clear about their core values and interests, which can give them confidence as they enter college. Exposure beyond the familiar allows for internal emotional connection to previously unknown or undeveloped parts of self.

Ability to overcome challenges

Gap year activities also expose students to situations that require critical thinking, adaptability and problem solving. Volunteering with fundraising efforts at a local charity, for example, can teach students how to build rapport, negotiate and deal with rejection.

Being faced with and successfully managing real-world challenges allows students to realize their own strength. When they develop a pattern of dealing effectively with obstacles, such as unexpected changes in travel plans or a working with a difficult colleague at an internship, the prospect of surviving college demands seems less daunting.

Improved perspective

For many high school students, their perspective is shaped by a small world: their families, local community and school experiences. Their biggest concerns may range from figuring out whom they want to go with to prom to deciding which electives to choose next year.

Through gap year activities, graduates gain a much broader view of the world. Even if they just take on a job in their hometown, they start to realize their actions have an impact. They see they can make a difference with clients or customers through their work. The focus is less on themselves as individuals and more on how they can help others.

Students who travel gain a global viewpoint. Experiencing the varied customs, practices and languages around the world can be eye opening to many young people. They’re often pushed out of their comfort zones, being exposed to new ideas and viewpoints. Bonding with people who have very different life experiences often allows them to develop a new appreciation for their own experiences. For instance, having to settle for their second-choice college may not seem like as big a deal after meeting someone who grew up in a country where few can even afford to go to college.

A boost in motivation

Finally, there’s a renewed fire to succeed. In the same way that taking breaks and vacations allow adults to mentally recharge for work, students who take a gap year have been shown to bring a fresh energy to their formal education when they return. One study found that students in the United States and United Kingdom who had taken a gap year were more likely to graduate with a higher grade point average than similar individuals who went straight to college.

Gap years are particularly beneficial to students who haven’t been exposed to many experiences outside of typical teen life. They can develop the independence, resilience, flexibility and coping skills that lead to a strong mental health outlook in the college years and beyond.

Personal and brain maturation

There are certain students, for example those with ADHD and non-verbal learning disabilities (NVLD), who lag behind in terms of neuro-developmental maturity. Their brains mature on a slower time-line than many of their peers. A gap year offers the advantage of allowing a bit more time for their maturation to catch up. Reinforcement in a gap year through enriching activities which promote brain maturation facilitates the emerging adult with ADHD or NVLD to compete more on par with peers. In addition, emerging adults with ADHS and NVLD, and other mental health difficulties as well, are particularly vulnerable to being derailed by the provocative risks on the average college campus. An additional year of personal growth and brain maturation may serve as an ounce of prevention when these emerging adults do go off to college.

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