Thrive on Campus//

9 Eye-Opening Truths About the College Mental Health Crisis

Young Millennials and Gen Z students report higher rates of anxiety and depression than ever before. We need to understand why so we can do something about it.

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

 

The dizzying number of headlines about the psychological state of college students — that they’re severely anxious, depressed, even suicidal — might leave you deeply concerned and wondering: What’s going on?

Heartbreaking recent news stories have shined a spotlight on suicides on campus and class action lawsuits against institutions perceived to have mishandled mental health-related cases.

In September alone, two major studies revealed another set of unsettling statistics: 1 in 3 college freshmen across the globe experiences symptoms consistent with at least one mental health disorder, and 1 in 5 college students contemplated suicide last year. Adding to the that, a recent newsletter from Boston University’s School of Public Health reports that 30 percent of students struggling with depression drop out, one-fifth of whom might have stayed in school with the proper treatment and intervention. Gen Zers (those born after 1995), in fact, continue to see a staggeringly steady upswing in rates of anxiety and depression since 2010.

We’ve all heard the standard refrains about the weaknesses of Gen Z: Their parents over-coddled them! They’re too entitled! Social media has ruined them! The smartphone has taken over their lives!

While it’s tempting to blame technology or helicopter parenting alone, the reasons for the student mental health crisis are more nuanced than common perceptions suggest. For this investigation, I parsed a dozen studies and spoke to top experts on this age group, as well as students themselves, to provide a more complete picture of why this cohort of co-eds is battling higher rates of depression and anxiety than ever before. With their help, I’ve identified the myriad ways everything from the lure of Likes to modern American parenting to the pressure to be productive and accessible 24/7 have contributed to the fraught psychological state of young Americans.

A combination of the following factors is at play:

1) Destigmatization and Years of Mental Health Advocacy Have Encouraged Students to Seek Help

Back in 2000, mental illness was so shrouded and stigmatized that it was a major national news story when Mary “Tipper” Gore, Vice President Al Gore’s wife, revealed in 1999 that she’d battled depression a decade earlier. I remember my mother, who’d endured a severe depressive episode in the early 90s, staring at the television screen, saying how grateful she was that Tipper had come forward because people didn’t understand depression. “They can’t see it like they can a broken limb,” she said, “so they don’t believe it or they think you’re just nuts.”

The number of college students who reported ever begin diagnosed with depression has more than doubled since 2000, according to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment. Some experts contend that less stigma and greater awareness may explain, in part, why we’re seeing increased diagnoses. As recently as 2007, perceived stigma among college students was at a high of 64 percent, but has shot down to 47 percent, according to the latest Healthy Minds Study (HMS), an annual, web-based survey of mental health in college student populations.

“Stigma is not one size fits all,” says Barry Schreier, Ph.D., director of University Counseling Services at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “Some communities feel much more stigma than others,” he stresses — like African American and Asian communities, for example, according to the Healthy Minds Database — “but we’ve certainly seen it reduced.” Ben Locke, Ph.D., the senior director of Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) at Penn State, and executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, believes that the alarm expressed over escalating rates of depression and anxiety in younger people may be overblown, arguing that it’s largely the success of some 15 years of advocacy around mental illness that’s leading more people to come forward.

“What’s somewhat troubling to me,” says Locke, “is now that students are showing up to utilize services and receive diagnoses, we turn around and say, ‘What’s wrong with these students?’’” He points to the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into mental health awareness and suicide prevention over the last 15 years in grades K-12 and college to explain the spikes. Schreier agrees, noting that 2015 findings from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, which gathers data from counseling centers at colleges across the country, found that utilization of mental health services by college students shot up 30 to 40 percent between 2010 to 2015, while enrollment only increased by 5 percent. “We’ve certainly seen a decline in stigma, so in some ways we’re now experiencing the problem of our success,” he says, pointing also to the issue of understaffed and overtaxed mental health facilities across U.S. colleges and universities, which we address in-depth in the second part of Thrive Global’s investigation on campus mental health.

Not all experts agree with Locke’s and Schreier’s assessment, though. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, offers a different perspective. She says several studies, which survey a representative sample of the teenage population, not just those who actively seek help, show a consistent rise in both lower-level symptoms of depression (e.g., agreeing with statements like, “my life isn’t useful” or “I feel like I can’t do anything right”) as well as major depressive disorder. Additionally, she notes, behaviors related to depression, such as self-harm and suicide, have risen sharply in adolescents and teenagers, as documented by hospitals and county offices, so they can’t be explained by over-reporting by teens or increased help-seeking. “If anything,” she says, “more self-harm and suicide suggests that fewer teens are asking for or getting the help they need.” The latest Healthy Minds Study supports her point: less than 50 percent of students who met criteria for mental health problems have received any type of treatment in the past year.

2) Digital Technology Has Weakened Real-Life Sociality

Twenge, a prominent researcher on how modern technologies have impacted the mental health of Millennials and Gen Zers, suggests the bulk of the blame is on students’ excess use of social media and smartphones. Despite some criticism of her work, which pegs her as anti-technology and too myopic in her view that the digitization of our lives directly correlates with skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety, she maintains that the only major cultural event that took place amid the spiking mental health issues over the last six years was the iPhone hitting market saturation in 2012. Many of the experts with whom I spoke agreed.

Modern technology has untethered us from ourselves and each other. That’s what Julie M. Albright, Ph.D., a sociologist specializing in digital culture and communications at the University of Southern California (USC), argues in her forthcoming book, Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream. Participation in institutions that organized our social lives in eras past, like church, marriage, political parties, and outdoor or neighborhood activities are on the decline, while teenagers continue to prioritize virtual sociality over face-to-face interactions. A 2015 Pew Research Center report on 27 national surveys over a ten-year period found that 90 percent of 18 to 29 years olds are on social media. Teens 13 to 18 spend an average of 9 hours per day consuming online entertainment according to non-profit advocacy group Common Sense Media. And 45 percent of teens say they are almost constantly online, a Pew Research Center survey found earlier this year. And yet, despite their plentiful social networks, a recent national survey of more than 20,000 Americans conducted by Cigna indicates that hyper-digitized Gen Zers are the loneliest among us. “This coupling of coming untethered from things that stabilize us and not taking part in activities that will rejuvenate and restore our minds, our spirits, our mental health,” says Albright — like getting out in nature sans devices and meeting up with friends face-to-face — explains, in part, the skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety we’re seeing. Twenge, writing in iGen, notes: “Teens who spend more time with their friends in person are happier, less lonely and less depressed, while those who spend more time on social media are less happy, lonelier, and more depressed.”

3) A Culture of Comparison Online

Another reason online sociality is ravaging the well-being of students is that it creates an unhealthy and unrealistic culture of comparison. “When you see people online, you’re only seeing their best,” says Zoe Howland, a 21-year-old senior at Ithaca College in Ithaca NY, who is double majoring in sociology and culture and communication. “If you see [people’s curated feeds] as reality, it makes it seem like everyone else is happier and doing better than you.” Locke adds that students often measure “all their internal doubt and worst fears” against Instagram accounts that never line up with anyone’s “true, authentic internal experiences.” The desire to display a highly manufactured and resolutely positive self image extends in part from the pressure at some of the more competitive schools — Stanford, Yale, M.I.T., Brown — to seem like you’ve got it all together. Jerome Walker, a 21-year-old senior majoring in music at Yale who’s also a counselor to first year students, says, “There’s a pressure to put on a front to seem OK, like you don’t need help and can do everything on your own and every day is a great day.”

4) The 24/7 Bad News Cycle

On top of the isolation social media can breed — and the toxic forms of comparison it encourages — students today have no escape from the tragedies that plague us locally and internationally. “When I was 20,” says Schreier, who’s in his 50s, “the news came on for 30 minutes a day and that was it. To get more news was effortful,” and to access international coverage you had to visit a library. “This generation is aware of every terrible thing going on all the time everywhere,” he says. Kelly Davis, the director of peer advocacy, support and services at Mental Health America, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those living with mental illness, adds: “We’ve been trained to view the world as a much more dangerous place than previous generations,” she says, “and were constantly getting messages that confirm the world is not safe.”

Not only are students “overloaded by stimuli,” says Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., a professor in the department of graduate psychology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, they’re “lost in a flood of information that’s hard to make sense out of,” because information online — Tweets, posts, photos, video clips — often lack context, which creates a confusion and uncertainty that exacerbates anxiety.

5) More Diverse Populations of Students

As college has become more accessible to a wider range of people from more diverse backgrounds, minority and international students experience unique forms of stress that can interfere with their mental well-being. Historian Stephanie Coontz, Ph.D., author of The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap, says that increased inclusion in the college experience is positive sign of progress, but it poses distinct challenges for those from historically marginalized populations. “Back when I went to college, most students were from middle class or upwardly mobile families who had both the economic and cultural resources that made college life (and its opportunities) fairly easy to negotiate,” Coontz told Thrive. “For groups whose parents didn’t raise them with the same (white, middle class, heterosexual) language, expectations, and habits that are still built into most of the structures of college life, it’s more treacherous terrain.”

Jessica Gold, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, seconds Coontz’s points: “College is accessible to more people from diverse backgrounds, which is awesome,” she says, “but their adjustment is that much harder.” Gold emphasizes that the transition to college is universally stressful, but for minorities and international students, there are added pressures. “They may feel more different or less like they belong, and that is harder to overcome,” she says. “They also may bring different assumptions, habits, languages, and concerns,” says Coontz, making it more difficult for some of these students to adjust to the dominant — more homogenized — culture on campus and in society at large.

6) The Perils of Pinning Self-Worth on Likes

Robert M. Bilder, Ph.D., a psychology professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, hits on another issue that could help illuminate why this generation of students is struggling: a shallow value system defined by Likes, Retweets and Follows.

He calls the mass accumulation of Likes “ersatz social stimulation,” noting that it has two effects. First, as studies suggest, the high of receiving hundreds of Likes operates on the brain like an addictive drug, ushering forth a thrilling dopamine surge derived from the sensation of being socially connected on a massive scale. But, like any substance high, it’s not sustainable, so you end up in an endless cycle of looking for a fix that dissipates as quickly as you get it. “It’s almost always disappointing,” Bilder says, “because it’s not a sustained form of reinforcement. It’s brief and fleeting.”

Bilder, who embarrasses his children by walking up to other kids fiddling with their smartphones at parks by bellowing, “Hey! There’s an incredible opportunity for ultra-high bandwidth, 3D communication, right here,” reminisces about the deeper and more deliberate forms of communication and connection in generations past, like paper letters. To boot, while you may have thousands of followers on social, he notes, the vast majority are tenuous and shallow connections, which can amplify the feelings of isolation that lead to depression.

7) Smartphone Use Has Eroded the Quality of Students’ Sleep

The immoderate, sometimes toxic, use of smartphones and social media has also interrupted sleep, which numerous studies indicate leads to poor mental and physical health. In 2010, a small study came out of the JFK Sleep Medicine Clinic in Edison, NJ, finding that teens text an average of 34 times after their heads hit the pillow. In 2015, the journal Sleep Health published a study showing that 70 percent of teens sent at least one text between 10 p.m. and 5:59 a.m. LivePerson, a tech company, released a survey in 2017 showing that 70 percent of Millennials and Gen Zers around the world sleep with their smartphones within easy reach, and 52 percent check it during the night if they wake.

And it gets worse. The latest results from a study published in the October issue of JAMA Pediatrics reveal staggering new stats: Analyzing data from 67,615 high school students between 2007 and 2015, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that students who slept less than 6 hours per night were twice as likely to report higher-risk behaviors, including using alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other drugs, and driving after drinking alcohol; three times as likely to consider suicide; and four times as likely to attempt suicide.

“I think [the declining quality of students’ sleep] potentially explains all of these mental health increases because sleep is so crucial,” Twenge says. She published a 2017 study in Sleep Medicine that showed teens sleep less than 7 hours per night most nights, but studies indicate they need more like 9 to 10 hours. “If devices mean [students are] not sleeping enough, and not sleeping as well,” emphasizes Twenge, “that’s a huge factor for mental health issues,” including depression and anxiety. 

Sleep deprivation, coupled with the fact that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25, may also make it harder for students to manage their mental health struggles and everyday emotions. Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and coauthor of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, told NPR that the prefrontal cortex, which manages the brain’s executive function is not fully developed when we’re college age. ”That’s the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal,” she explained. (She also told NPR that the reward system doesn’t come to full fruition until we’re 25, which might illuminate why students are especially vulnerable to the cheap thrills of Likes and Follows — and seek them long into the wee hours of the night.)

8) The Deprioritization of Downtime

On top of the ways iPhones are disrupting sound sleep, they’re making it impossible to unplug and unwind. Jerome Walker, the Yale senior, says there’s a pressure to be “accessible 24/7 just because you have a phone.” He often needs to remind himself, he says, that he doesn’t have to reply to emails and texts immediately.

USC sociologist Albright says students’ constant communion with their smartphones doesn’t allow their brains to relax and rejuvenate. “On top of a high pressure environment full of exams and deadlines, they’re constantly scrolling, Liking, sharing, commenting,” she says. Smartphones help create the expectation that students should be productive — doing something — around the clock. But analog activities like hiking or being near water (without phone in hand) are crucial because they allow the mind to relax and aimlessly meander during an unfocused and unstructured span of time, she says.

But to students, decompressing can feel like a waste of time. “There’s this feeling that you have to do everything — work, go to classes, see friends, do extracurriculars — and it can take up all day and feel really overwhelming,” says Zoe Howland, the senior at Ithaca College, who’s also the president of her school’s chapter of Active Minds, a peer-led mental health advocacy group. “We get the message that we have to always be utilizing our time and being productive,” she says. 23-year-old Stefanie Lyn Kaufman, who graduated from Providence, Rhode Island’s Brown University in 2017 with a double major in medical anthropology and contemplative studies, adds: “It’s a violent culture of productivity. Like, you’re never doing enough. You can never be quick enough.” Madison Darmofal, A 21-year-old senior double majoring in computer science and biology at MIT, says the lack of downtime contributes to the mental duress many students are under: “We often feel like we don’t have time to take breaks, which leads to a build up of little things turning into a larger breakdown.”

9) Yes, Helicopter Parents Do Undermine Coping Skills

The experts I spoke with didn’t only lay blame on digital technology for the mental health woes of younger generations. They also took aim at a culture of parenting in America that has over-protected and over-indulged kids to such a degree that they haven’t built up “emotional calluses” (Henriques’ term) or “self-soothing skills,” says Schreier.

In their forthcoming book, The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, Anthony L. Rostain, M.D., a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and family psychologist B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., note that the historical and cultural circumstances through which Millennials and Gen-Zers were raised — the tragedy of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an assaultive 24/7 news cycle, digital predators, the collapse of the housing market, the Great Recession, the uncertainties of the global economy, astronomical college debt, fewer job possibilities, and on and on — has contributed to an era of “heightened parental control and protection, paradoxically resulting in a generation of children who lack resilience,” says Hibbs.

Some of the mental health professionals l interviewed said many of the students who visit campus mental health facilities simply need life management skills. “There’s so much focus on resilience, mindfulness and grit now because [students] seem to be lacking those,” says Locke. When they arrive at Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services, he often thinks: “‘You don’t need counseling. We just need to teach you how to self-soothe and manage your own emotions so you won’t feel as distressed.” Locke adds that we may have “overshot the mark, convincing a whole population of folks that any form of stress requires professional help.” 

James Madison University’s Gregg Henriques, who calls the parents of younger Millennials and Gen Zers “harm avoiders,” adds: “Talk to any college counseling directors and staff psychologists and they’ll say ‘the emotional resilience of this crew is not high. They’re panicking over normal life stressors.” The irony is that by over-protecting them, we’ve hurt them. “The metamessages of the bubbles we’ve built around them is that it’s a dangerous world out there and they’re not in a position to cope,” he says.

How Students Can Thrive

The reasons students are dealing with higher rates of depression and anxiety are myriad, but there are several steps they can take to improve their mental well-being:

Embrace moderation

“Data on mental health” says San Diego State’s Twenge, “point to limiting digital media use to two hours a day of leisure time or less.” That doesn’t include homework or work-related use, just recreational use. “That’s good advice for adults too,” she says. Yale senior Jerome Walker says he could stand to “take more purposeful time away” from his phone, but encourages students to resist the compulsion to respond to everything quickly.

Don’t double down

During finals week, most students’ inclination is to hunker down and submit to the stress of all-nighters, cramming for good grades. That’s all wrong, according to UCLA’s Bilder, because studies indicate that sleep may actually raise your GPA. “Improved sleep equals improved GPA,” he says. Charles A. Czeisler, M.D., a professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Buzzfeed that your brain’s hippocampus encodes what you learn while you sleep, so skipping shuteye will fail your long-term memory and challenge your ability to recall info on tests. “For me stress leads to more stress. It’s a negative feedback loop,” Walker says. Instead, he suggests finding regular ways to shut your brain down, whether that’s taking a nap, meditating, going for a walk, or enjoying a favorite show. USC’s Albright agrees: “Having time that is ‘free form’ — open and un-regimented — will actually allow you to relax in a deeper way, since the pressure’s off to ‘do something,’” she says.

Remember that everyone has problems

Albright encourages students to remember that every Instagram account includes what Walker calls “deleted scenes”: scenes that show a less perfect and more human version of the people you follow. Keep that in mind as soon as you start comparing yourself in impossible and false expectations.

Don’t Pin Your Value on Likes, Retweets and Follows

It’s fun to get a lot of Likes, but it’s ultimately frivolous. “Many people on social media have thousands of followers, but no one has that many friends, so the depth of those connections are shallow and ultimately unfulfilling,” Bilder says. If you can keep that in mind and cultivate closer connections with a smaller posse of people, says Nance Lucas, Ph.D., the executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, you’ll reap the positive benefits of what social media has to offer. “It’s not the quantity you have on there,” Lucas says, “It is qualitatively the depth of those connections that can have a positive impact on your overall well-being.” Also key is the work of probing life’s bigger questions, which will help you find your meaning, suggests James Madison University’s Gregg Henriques: Who are you? What’s your purpose? What do you believe in? What do you want out of life?

Find Your Tribe

If you’re struggling with mental illness or just feeling isolated and lonely, find a campus organization or group that speaks to your identity and/or cause. Mental Health America’s Kelly Davis, who struggled when she was an undergraduate at American University in D.C., joined her campus’s Active Minds chapter, of which she eventually became president, to connect with people who understood her: “Knowing that someone has been where I am and gone on to live, thrive, and contribute made me feel like maybe I could do it too,” she says. Washington University’s Jessica Gold says international students who are having difficulty adjusting can tap into international student housing or groups, where they may be able to access an immediate sense of community through commonality. 


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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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