Anxiety Epidemic: College Students More Worried Than Ever?

Over the past decade there has been mounting concern about the mental health of college students. Survey after survey, article and article, blog post after blog post reports high levels of anxiety, depression and other psychological conditions stalking students in quads and lecture halls across the country. Recently anxiety displaced depression as the most common disorder affecting students in numerous surveys. Nearly 1 in 6 college students was treated for anxiety or an anxiety disorder over the past year according to an annual report by the American College Health Association. The American Psychological Association is worried. College administrators are worried. A 2013 survey found 95% of college counseling centers expressed a "growing concern" about students with serious mental health problems.

Why are colleges students more stressed than usual?

The causes range widely, experts say, from mounting academic pressure at earlier ages to overprotective parents to compulsive engagement with social media. Anxiety has always played a role in the developmental drama of a student’s life, but now more students experience anxiety so intense and overwhelming that they are seeking professional counseling. Anxious College Students Strain College Mental Health Centers, New York Times

Yes, did you catch that part about parents?

We over-involved, coddling parents who carefully, reluctantly hand over our precious children who are woefully unprepared for balancing their checkbooks (i.e. checking the balance online) and remembering to change their sheets once a semester.

University presidents, counselors and the media all appear more worried than ever about anxious students. What is not certain - whether students actually are more anxious than ever.

It is reasonable to ask to what extent the seeming anxiety epidemic reflects growing anxiety versus other factors such as better awareness, less stigma, more counseling services and resources or even dramatic, heavily covered campus shootings. It's an important issue but nobody seems to know how much anxiety is on the rise.

Although it's very easy to find news of anxiety and stress among today's college students, it is not so simple to determine if anxiety is increasing. It's not easy to make conclusive judgments about longer term changes in the prevalence of anxiety disorders or for that matter, mental health disorders in general. The World Health Organization reports nearly a third of Americans will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives - making us the most anxious country on the globe. Thus I must  ask if there's a correlation between anxiety and awareness, resources, stigma, affluence, and I'll also throw in the insatiable 24/7 new media, because why not.

Are young adults in general more stressed? Why the spot light on college co-eds anyhow? College students make for an excellent, easy survey pool. Fewer surveys address their peers off campus so it's not clear if the latter face as much anxiety. They're not as easily corralled into either college mental health centers (free stress balls! free smoothies!) or undergraduate subject pools (5 extra credit points!).

None of this is to suggest anxiety is not an issue or not a burden. Nor is it to suggest getting through college with its menu of social, emotional and cognitive challenges is stress-free. If I have to regularly read about anxious students, however, it would be a relief to have their plight put into perspective. I would love to have some data, some evidence to do so. At this point it is not forthcoming.

NOTE: Thanks to Andrea Riley for spurring this discussion. Left to my own devices, I would have bored you with a follow-up on the latest faked data scandal. I just can't stop laughing at the NY Times  advice on how to prevent future scientific fraud:

It can start by ensuring that scientists, especially peer reviewers, are allowed to see the underlying data of a paper, which researchers are typically reluctant to share...The federal government could sponsor studies to determine how much cheating goes on, how much harm it causes and how best to combat it.

Right. Uh huh. It sounds so good, so reasonable (unless you've ever been in a research lab). So peer reviewers (i.e. busy professors/researchers) will delve into the raw data behind the papers under review, the same papers they critique in their spare time for free -  while their own grad students supervise undergraduates who are coding and entering their own lab's raw data. After which the grad students will likely analyze the data,  highlight the good bits and start crafting the incredibly boring methodology section of the new paper the advisors/mentors (the same peer reviewers above!!!) will soon submit for peer review. At which point they will offer up their own data to a fresh set of peer reviewers.

To say nothing about the government sponsoring further research.


Andrea Riley said...

As a regular Momma Data reader, I have learned to be highly skeptical of NYT coverage on parenting matters or anything remotely science related! On that note I don't want anybody telling me there's an "epidemic" without at least the courtesy of a nice graph showing an upward slant, like those CDC ones of obesity they use to scare us into eating vegetables.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

You were born skeptical, weren't you Andrea? I could post a graph that covers an upward slope over 5 years, would that make you feel better? I'm surprised the media didn't publish it. But of course a few years, heck even a decade is not really enough time to draw any solid conclusions.