The Gap Year: Mental Health Benefits of Taking Time Off

Rear view of backpacking traveler walking along train tracks under bridgeMany young adults have chosen, especially in recent years, to embark on what is known as a gap year. It has become more common for students to take a year off between high school and college. Malia Obama, for example, drew attention when she chose to defer her enrollment to Harvard. This decision helped publicize the mental health benefits that can result from taking a gap year.

College can be a risky environment for the development of mental health conditions. Many students in a post-secondary environment may experience symptoms of a mental health condition, and the American Psychological Association (APA) refers to the situation as a “growing crisis.”

In 2010, more than 45% of students involved in an American College Health Association survey reported feelings of hopelessness. The same year, a poll of college counselors found they considered about 44% of students to have severe psychological issues (up from just 16% in 2000).

The gap year has been shown to reduce the likelihood of developing many of the symptoms that are most prevalent among college students, such as depression, alcohol abuse, disordered eating, and anxiety. These are not new findings. In fact, Harvard instituted a policy more than 15 years ago recommending that incoming undergraduates take a year off after high school, specifically to prevent psychological burnout. Since then, compelling evidence for the benefits of a gap year has only grown.

Coping with Transition After High School

Students in grade school often face academic pressures. Grades, careers, social lives, relationships, and other matters can contribute to the already significant stress of growing up. As a result, students may be especially susceptible to mental health issues with the added stress and pressure of college. Taking a gap year can give students time to psychologically decompress, alleviating and potentially eliminating many of the stressors that have accumulated during high school.

According to the American Gap Association (AGA), 92% of students who choose to take a gap year say their intentions are to add life skills and experience personal growth. Studies of returning gap year students have found they demonstrate significantly higher gains in these areas, when compared to those who did not take the break. Participants specifically identified being in a new, non-academic environment as the most meaningful part of the experience.

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As discussed in There Is Life After College by University of Arizona professor Jeffrey Selingo, a new, “real world” setting brings with it new challenges, often forcing people to find new ways to deal with situations they would not typically be exposed to as students. Selingo helps parents, higher-education leaders, and young adults understand how to succeed in school to better navigate the current job market.

In the not-too-distant past, a college education would have almost guaranteed a lifetime of employment. Students today face a different reality; even graduate degrees may not include the promise of economic success, and job stability is becoming more uncommon. Selingo suggests there is abundant potential for making personal developments through the transitional experiences associated with taking a gap year, and these gains may be responsible for inspiring better adaptive behaviors in the future.

A Gap Year’s Impact on Motivation

Many parents and teachers worry that time away from a structured educational environment might leave students with less motivation to continue their academic careers. Research shows gap years do have a connection to decreased motivation, but the results of this lowered motivation may be positive. Motivation is directly connected to psychological well-being through the neurotransmitter dopamine (among other things), so this fundamental change may be one of the mechanisms through which the gap year helps to safeguard mental health.

Taking a gap year can give students time to psychologically decompress, alleviating and potentially eliminating many of the stressors that have accumulated during high school.A study by University of Sydney professor Andrew Martin measured academic motivations in Australian students before and after taking a gap year. Low academic performance and motivation in high school were both found to be associated with a higher likelihood of taking a gap year, but high motivation and the development of adaptive behaviors in college were correlated with gap year participation.

These results may suggest time away from school provides an opportunity for students to mature in a variety of productive ways. This coincides with previous research that identifies the time spent during a gap year as a facilitator of cross-cultural learning and evaluations of personal values.

Gap years have consistently been found to be associated with mental health benefits for more than 15 years. They may facilitate positive effects, such as aiding in stress reduction, enabling motivational changes, and accelerating the adoption of adaptive behaviors. Many gap year students exhibit gains in confidence, sense of identity, and self-esteem that can last well after the conclusion of their academic careers. The practice is likely to become even more popular as such findings become more well known, and as educational institutions continue to promote its usefulness for students transitioning into college.

References:

  1. American Gap Association (2015). Gap year data and benefits. Retrieved from http://www.americangap.org/data-benefits.php
  2. American Psychological Association (n. d.) The state of mental health on college campuses: A growing crisis. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/gr/education/news/2011/college-campuses.aspx
  3. Crawford, C., & Cribb, J. (2012). Gap year takers: uptake, trends and long term outcomes. Institute for Fiscal Studies through the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT). London, UK: Department for Education. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/219637/DFE-RR252.pdf
  4. Dell’Antonia, K. J. (2016, April 19). Gap year may have benefits long after college. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/gap-year-may-have-benefits-long-after-college/?ref=health&_r=1
  5. Harvard College (2011). Should I take time off? Retrieved from https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/preparing-college/should-i-take-time
  6. Martin, A. J. (2010). Should students have a gap year? Motivation and performance factors relevant to time out after completing school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 561. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ892653
  7. McPhate, M. (2016, May 2). Malia Obama’s ‘gap year’ is part of a growing (and expensive) trend. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/03/us/malia-obamas-gap-year-is-part-of-a-growing-and-expensive-trend.html?_r=0
  8. Selingo, J. (2016). There Is Life After College. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  9. Sparks, S. D. (2010, September 15). Research suggests a ‘gap year’ motivates students. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/09/15/04gap.h30.html

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  • Sally

    Sally

    May 17th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    The bad thing is that student loans won’t support you through the gap year

  • Bev

    Bev

    May 18th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    I really do wish that I had been able to do this out of high school. Instead I had to get a job and go to work. I have had a great career but I have always felt like I missed out on a lot not getting to go to school or really even having the time to figure out what I actually wanted to do with my life. The goal was to go to work and get married and have kids and guess what? That was what I did because the family always needed the money. I hope to be able to give more than that to my own children when the time comes.

  • connor

    connor

    May 19th, 2016 at 8:03 AM

    Best thing I ever did! Took that year off, went into college a year later and was way more successful than I probably would have been otherwise

  • Sydney

    Sydney

    May 20th, 2016 at 9:27 AM

    Wouldn’t you think thought that there are some kids who may have done okay in college if they went right after high school but since they took that time off they will decide no to ever go back to school?

    I mean it is good to think that the ones who will be successful will eventually find their way back to school, but it is almost imperative that you have some sort of post high school education today and that makes me really worried that more kids WON”T do that if they take the year off and decide they don’t miss school all that much.

  • sarah

    sarah

    May 21st, 2016 at 9:03 AM

    seems like we are only hearing the benefits of this now that Sasha Obama has decide to take a year off

  • Caroline A

    Caroline A

    May 23rd, 2016 at 10:34 AM

    I want my kids to be in the best state of mind when they go off to college but I don’t want them to have any lag time. Think about this from the parents point of view. Will there still be the scholarship and grant money available of they take a year off? And what happens if they then decide that college is just not in their game plan?
    Nope I would rather just go ahead and send mine right on through.

  • Steven

    Steven

    May 23rd, 2016 at 2:21 PM

    When I graduated from high school I knew that I was not ready to make the commitment to college that my parents wanted me to make but I did not want to disappoint them so I went.
    Big mistake. Wasted tons of time and money on a degree that I still don’t have and probably would have bee a whole lot more satisfied if I had just gotten a job or gone to tech school.

  • trent

    trent

    May 24th, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    You would not believe how the level of maturity increases between graduation from high school and waiting until the following fall to enter college. I would encourage this sit out time for anyone thinking about furthering their education but who is unsure if this is the right move for you.

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