The fun, freedom and opportunity that college life presents has long been a lure for young people. Liberated from parental shackles for the very first time, youths are free to do what they want, when they want to do it. But for many students, the reality of college life is quite different. Young adults are more stressed and unhappy than ever before, and it's no exaggeration to say that US colleges are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Described as an 'epidemic' that's sweeping across American campuses, the statistics are startling: one in four students are suffering from a diagnosable illness; 70 percent of college counseling directors believe the number of students with severe psychological problems has increased in the past year; and a further 95 percent said the number of students with psychological problems is a growing concern.
Nearly 50% of students say they feel intense anxiety. Image by College Degrees 360.
While depression has long been the main culprit of mental health problems on campus, levels of anxiety have sky-rocketed in recent years to become the number one health concern among students. While nearly one-third of students say they felt depressed during their first year, nearly fifty percent felt intense anxiety to the point that it interfered with their studies and their ability to concentrate.
So what is it that's stressing out our students so much? What is it about modern life that is so much harder for this generation of young adults to deal with? And what type of coping mechanisms can help lessen the problem?
Social, Financial and Academic Distress
Most mental health experts agree that there is no single cause of the mounting anxiety among this age bracket. The most common roots of concerns are academic pressures, financial concerns and more personal worries, which are often linked to the rise of social media - the new pressure to be available 24/7 and the often mistaken belief that everyone else is having more fun and achieving much more than you.
A shift in parenting attitudes over the years is also said to be a contributing factor; the prevalence of 'helicopter parents' who hover overprotectively and overindulgently around their children has meant many young people today lack the independence and resilience of previous generations. This has an effect on their ability to handle strain and develop effective coping mechanisms.
"[Many young people] can't tolerate discomfort or having to struggle," says Dr. Dan Jones, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Appalachian State University. "A primary symptom is worrying, and they don't have the ability to soothe themselves."
Being coddled by overbearing parents to the point where independence is hindered also affects students' abilities to handle their finances, as well as deal with personal problems. Financial distress is extensively associated with depression and anxiety: 21 percent of students who described a high level of financial anxiety also described high levels of depressive symptoms. On the other hand, only 3 percent of students who described low levels of financial anxiety described a high level of depressive symptoms
Changing the Mental Health Stigma
Interestingly, the rise in the number of students suffering from anxiety isn't just due to an increase in stressors or pressures; it is also due to the gradual erosion of stigma around mental health problems. College counseling centers are reporting record numbers of visits and students are more likely to ask for help than ever before, which naturally means the number of students officially recorded as suffering from mental health problems will rise too.
Further, previously taboo issues like substance abuse are now discussed more openly than in preceding years, affecting more people than you may think: studies by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have found that 29% of college students struggle with substance abuse each year. Being more open about these issues means students do feel supported. They ask for assistance when needed and learn important coping strategies, a former addict and current student Jennifer states:
"Living with non-sober students, I was aware that I was in quite a precarious position. Because I'd been open about my addiction with my college, I already had a system where I checked in with a college counselor twice a month at least. It was really helpful in keeping me feeling confident that I was coping, even when things became stressful or my workload increased.
"In the past, I had a habit of closing my eyes to how much things were affecting me until it overwhelmed me. Feeling as though you're being overcautious can be annoying, but think about the alternative - not realizing you're struggling until it's too late and you hit rock bottom. I'd really urge other students to set up meetings with a professional, at least once a month."
Beyond the professional help that's being offered on campuses, many colleges are taking other steps to lift their students' spirits. At UCLA, specially designed sleep pods have been positioned around campus so that stressed, tired students can nap as needed and recover from the most damaging effects of sleep deprivation. Getting enough sleep is crucial for boosting alertness, productivity and happiness; studies have shown that even a 40 minute nap results in a 34 percent performance increase and a 100 percent increase in attentiveness.
Holistic methods are also being employed by many universities across the country to reduce the number of students who feel stressed and fearful. This year, a new wellness center opened up at Cal State Northridge to provide acupuncture, massage and yoga therapy for its students. Meditation - known to reduce stress and enhance peace of mind - is also being promoted throughout many universities.
Mental health has been a skeleton in our country's closet for too long. Now, new information and recent studies have rattled the cage door, we can start to give our young people the support they so desperately need.