Across the nation, the emotional health of college freshmen is on an unprecedented decline, having reached the lowest level since the University of California at Los Angeles survey “The American Freshman” began asking America’s college freshmen about their emotional health, some 25 years ago.
An unprecedented number of students are seeking counseling and arriving on the nation’s college campuses with mental health diagnoses.
“Emotional health has been trending downward and feeling overwhelmed has been trending upward,” according to the report. The percentage of students self-reporting their emotional health to be low is 48.1%, up from the lowest point recorded in 1985, when 37.4% reported low emotional health.
The Denver Metro area’s college population presents a microcosm of the national trend. At the University of Colorado Denver, the premiere public higher education institution in the city, demand for counseling services has grown by 250 percent in the last decade.
According to Dr. Patricia Larsen, the director of the University’s Student and Community Counseling Center, the numbers are not surprising. “Students have a lot more burdens to carry, which means that they are experiencing a lot more stress.”
While common wisdom attributes the decline to the Great Recession, the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression can obscure the fact that economic trends have been worsening for much longer. Such trends are one possible factor in the long-term rise in demand for counseling.
Economic Turmoil Reflected in the Numbers
If one looks at the general economic trends in the last decade, one major source of stress becomes clear: declining economic prospects underlie much of the emotional turmoil felt by more Americans, now including record numbers of college students.
Real earnings for the majority of the American middle class have been stagnant, if not declining, through much of that time. In fact, wages have been stuck in neutral for at least two decades; CNN reports, “Middle-class incomes have been stagnant for at least a generation, while the wealthiest tier has surged ahead at lightning speed.”
While the rich got richer, the middle class got anxious and depressed. And it took pills: diagnoses of mental health disorders such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, and a galaxy of others have been rising, and more college freshmen arrive on campus already taking medications.
“[The e]conomy is [a] huge concern” among the students seeking counseling, according to Larsen.
There are many ways economic worries affect students. Students are more concerned about the competitiveness of their degrees, “not an unrealistic worry” in a more competitive world, according to Larsen. Because of such worries, students are also more likely to contemplate graduate degrees in order to make themselves more competitive.
Students also feel pressure to perform at a higher level; they “put a lot of pressure on themselves to get really good grades to get into graduate schools.” Students are more serious earlier in their lives, according to Larsen, and more driven. Such a high-stakes environment leads to high stress.
Part of such high stakes comes from the financial burden many students assume in order to get their diplomas. According to the UCLA report, more students are taking on debt in order to attend college as many families struggle financially in the wake of the Great Recession. One reason why student debt adds to the risk and stress of a college education is its zombie-like nature: it can’t be discharged in a bankruptcy, creating a massive financial burden that can hobble a life.
And family financial struggles add to emotional stress. According to the report, in the wake of the recession students are also more likely to be saddled with worries about the state of their parents’ finances. The number of students from households where the father is unemployed is at an all-time high.
Aside from forcing students to take on debt, family financial problems can also force them to live at home and commute to school. Such students often carry more worries than those who live on campus, where they are more insulated from the world at large and where family problems are more distant.
But the economy is only part of the total picture. Ours is a more complex world than that. Another potential cause for stress, according to Larsen, is social media. Constant bombardment with tweets, instant messages, status updates and more creates a great deal of background anxiety, which may have an impact on student stress levels. In a more plugged-in world, there are more opportunities for emotional distress, anxiety, and concern, whether it is sourced in instant messages from a boyfriend or loved one, or comes in the form of a tweet about a disaster half a world away.
Women Particularly Hard-Hit
Women are more likely to experience low emotional health than men, according to the UCLA report. According to Larsen, young women have lots of expectations for themselves, ranging from being able to make a good living to managing a family. “Women are also more vulnerable in our society,” Larsen says, and have a higher “interpersonal sensitivity just because of how we socialize women.” That sensitivity may also be a source of stress.
Anxiety Begins in High School
Fear and anxiety about one’s economic prospects begins before students set foot on a college campus. The UCLA report reveals a significant rise in high school seniors feeling overwhelmed by challenges facing them.
Parents are also more worried about their children’s life prospects. Some, anxious about their children’s academic performance, see a quick fix in medicating the problem of low grades. According to the report, many students enter college with numerous mental health issues and disabilities, such as ADHD. This has also been the case at the Counseling Center at UCD, according to Larsen: more students than ever enter with some sort of diagnosis.
But Larsen cautions against concluding that students are worse off from a mental health standpoint than previous generations were. Part of the rise in the prevalence of diagnoses has a lot to do with the basic cultural processes and attitudes in our society: we’re more likely to seek immediate gratification in general. In response to stress, it is not surprising that we’re also more likely to ask our general practitioners for pills to manage our emotions.
A Program That Makes a Difference
While medication can be an important aspect of managing life’s turmoil, Larsen indicated that learning long-term coping strategies is also essential. At the Counseling Center at UCD, a program called Think Strong has proven particularly effective at helping students learn those long-term emotional management skills. The program has four components: interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, emotional regulation, and stress tolerance. Equipping students with such coping strategies and skills will ultimately prepare them for the stresses of the workplace, Larsen explains.
And emotional stress is unlikely to decline significantly anytime soon. The elevated levels of stress are likely to continue as the unemployment rate remains high, and many students do not see the economic prospects of their families improving in the near future. But even if employment numbers improve, the trends in income for the middle class may not, and stress and anxiety may remain for many years to come.