The Mental Health Epidemic Among College Students

College student perusing books in library stack

Rising Anxiety in College Students Fueling Mental Health Problems

College students are in the vortex of changing times and few certainties. So it’s no wonder mental health professionals and college administrators have realized there’s an ‘epidemic’ on campuses. This epidemic doesn’t involve germs or vaccinations. It’s a mental health epidemic that arises from confusion, complex societal changes, and the simple human challenge to find a clear, healthy path as the ground below us trembles.

In a conversation with Dr. Anthony Rostain, co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives, NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross notes that today’s college students are experiencing a rising level of anxiety, much of it related to “surviving college and doing well.”

What happened to the idea of going away to college to learn how to take on adult responsibilities, to explore who we are or who we might become, and to get to know different kinds of people, and maybe even have fun before being swamped with the work, family and financial burdens of adulthood?

Apparently college has lost much of the experience of being a place of discovery and learning for the sake of expanding our horizons. For many young people, college has become a place of stress and striving with an overriding tension that’s hard to explain, but that creates a shadow over what was once considered to be a challenging, but mostly enjoyable, step on the path to adulthood.

Managing Mental Health Issues in the Transition to College

Rostain points out that many teenagers and young adults are seeing therapists and managing their mental health issues when they live at home with their parents. But when their landscape and routines change, along with the stress of being independent and having academic requirements, their mental health regimens may suffer.

Rostain, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, says today’s college students have grown up knowing about the terror of 9/11 and school shootings, They are likely spending many hours on their cell phones and computers and absorbing much of the negative chatter on social media.

Epidemic of Anxiety in College Students

A team of researchers at the University of California Berkeley found that the number of 18-to-26-year-old students who report suffering from anxiety has doubled since 2008.

Some stressors are the rising cost of college and the related financial burden of student loans, as well as increasing time on digital devices and fewer hours spent on in-person interactions.

“We have a new epidemic on college campuses,” said Professor Richard Scheffler of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the Goldman School of Public Policy, who led the research team.“The students need help.”

Tips to Help Teens and Young Adults Survive the Stressed College Years

Each generation has to deal with its own issues and this generation of college students admittedly has many challenges brought upon them not by their own choosing, but by a society eager to embrace excessive competition and rapidly evolving technology. Here are a few ways parents, friends and other adults can be a source of encouragement as college students push through challenging times.

  1. Be flexible about academic schedules and personal needs: No one says a student has to graduate from college in four years. If stress is a factor, support your child if he or she wants to take a semester off, relax or get a job, and rethink the plan for the future.
  2. Ask for help from a college counselor or local therapist: Mental health professionals have experience with many different kinds of people and can help shed light on issues college students are dealing with. Trained and experienced therapists have many strategies to work with and can help find one that’s best suited to each individual.
  3. Give your young adult child freedom to find his or her path: Some people do need to go to college to fulfill their talents and dreams and others don’t. There are career training paths that don’t include college and many are easier on the family or individual budget. Trying to follow a path that parents or educators think is right, but doesn’t fit the young adult, only causes more stress. Encourage young people to follow their dreams and realistically work toward fulfilling those dreams.

References
Rostain, Anthony, “Mental Health Issues on College Campuses Continue to Increase.” Fresh Air with Terry Gross, NPR, May 28, 2019

Kane, Will, “Anxiety ‘Epidemic’ Brewing on College Campuses, Researchers Find,” Berkeley News, April 18, 2019

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