Go into almost every school and you will find the topic of student well-being discussed. This includes areas such as stress, anxiety, depression, fear of failure or perfectionism. How can we help students with this? Is having a growth mindset the answer?
The NHS report that there has been a 68% rise in hospital admissions for self-harm among girls under 17 in the last decade, as well as Childline reporting that they are busier than ever with teenagers calling about their mental health.
To date, growth mindsets have been studied primarily in relation to students’ educational outcomes, with research showing that students with a growth mindset are more resilient and generally go on to get better grades. But might mindsets also shape students’ broader mental well-being?
Growth Mindset and mental health
Clinical psychology researchers Jessica Schleider, Madelaine Abel, and John Weisz performed a very thorough review of 17 studies involving over 6,500 students and found that a fixed mindset was associated with more mental health problems in teenagers. When compared to their peers with a growth mindset, fixed mindset youth were 58% more likely to show more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression, or aggression. Click here to read our interview of Jessica Schleider.
Growth Mindset, anxiety and depression
Jessica Schleider and John Weisz, of Harvard University, also tested whether a growth mindset intervention could improve ability to cope with stress and reduce anxiety and depression in high-symptom adolescents. Students who developed a growth mindset fared considerably better than those who did not. In the short-term, having a growth mindset boosted physiological recovery following a socially stressful task. Nine months later, youths who received the mindset intervention also showed significantly larger declines for depression, as well as encouraging results for anxiety.
The link between mindset and anxiety occurs beyond a student’s teenage years. In a study on university students, researchers have found that the more fixed a person’s view of their personality, the greater the symptoms of mental illness they showed. They also found that students with a growth mindset were less likely to experience anxiety, depression and perfectionism.
Growth Mindset and self-esteem
Another study looked at the effect of mindset, academic performance and self-esteem. They found that those with a fixed mindset did not believe that they had the ability to improve academically. As a result, they experienced more negative emotions which led to a decrease in their self-esteem over time.
Growth Mindset and aggression
Researchers from Stanford University recently published a study that found helping students develop a growth mindset reduced the amount of aggressive incidents they were involved in and reduced the number of school exclusions. They also found that students with the view that people’s personalities could change were more likely to suggest education as a solution to bullying rather than responding aggressively themselves.
Do fixed mindsets predict psychological distress, or vice-versa?
Different studies have supported both possibilities. In one study, which followed 115 students, viewing emotions as fixed at the start of 7th grade predicted higher depressive symptoms by the end of 8th grade. Another study of 59 students found the opposite: compared to other students with fewer mental health problems, students with significantly worse mental health showed larger increases in fixed mindsets across a school year. Together, these studies suggest that the mindset-mental health link might be a two-way street, with fixed mindsets and mental health issues affecting each other over time.
Is the mindset-mental health link the same for girls and boys?
Although girls consistently get higher grades than boys, girls report lower expectations for personal success; show less resilience to setbacks; and feel more personal responsibility for failure than boys. This may be due to the type of praise they receive from their parents, with research finding that 1-3 year old boys are far more likely to be praised for their processes than girls are. This type of praise was found to predict their mindset later in their childhood. Indeed early research by Carol Dweck found that girls are more likely than boys to view criticism as a sign of low ability, which leads to more helpless responses to setbacks—and potentially, greater problems with mental health.
However, we know of only one study that has directly tested gender differences in the mindset-mental health link. In this study, Jessica Schleider and John Weisz found that girls held stronger fixed mindsets of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors than boys; that girls’ fixed mindsets grew stronger across the school year, but boys’ did not; and that fixed mindsets were more closely tied to mental health symptoms in girls than in boys.
Having a fixed mindset may leave young people more vulnerable to developing mental health difficulties. People who believe that they cannot become smarter, less shy, or more socially skilled may feel unable to control unwanted life events, and thus be more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, or aggression.
If fixed mindsets increase risk for mental health problems, can teaching growth mindsets improve resilience and mental health? Interventions teaching growth mindsets of intelligence and personality have improved academic performance, increased social behavior, and help students manage anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as improving self-esteem. Developing a growth mindset towards your academic ability and personality is obviously not the only way to help improve student mental health, but evidence suggests it can certainly play a role.