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Are Today’s College Students More Psychologically Fragile Than in the Past?

Weighing the evidence.

April 27, 2019
 
 

We frequently hear that today’s students suffer from record rates of anxiety, depression, and stress, that they are emotionally immature, and less resilient than their predecessors. Raised by overprotective parents who, too often, shielded their children from failure and regard their offspring as extensions of themselves, it is not a surprise, many assume, that they are deficient in coping skills and have high expectations for handholding. No wonder, it is easy to conclude, that they want trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Are today’s students more emotionally fragile than those in the past?

Many reports in popular media say yes.  After all, demands upon counseling centers have reached record highs.

The actual evidence, however, is unclear.

Longitudinal studies show no trends that suggest that psychological disorders are more prevalent. Suicide rates among college students have actually fallen.

So what’s going on?

Are reports of an upsurge in students’ emotional fragility an illusion?

In part, the growing demand for counseling reflects a shift in attitudes toward psychological problems. Students, whose parents closely monitored their emotional temperature, have grown more willing to acknowledge psychological issues and seek treatment, where institutions, especially the best funded, have grown increasingly responsive to the psychological problems on their campuses – a response intensified by liability concerns.

A new view of late adolescent and early adulthood brain development has also contributed to a growing sensitivity toward psychological issues. This stage of life is now regarded as a crucial time of transition, when emerging adults must – alongside academic concerns – wrestle with pressing problems of identity and interpersonal and sexual intimacy. Neither the limbic system, which is responsible for controlling emotions, drives, and moods, nor the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning, executive control, and expressions of behavior, are fully developed. And, we also now know that late adolescence and early adulthood are when many psychological disorders manifest themselves.

The increasing demand for psychological services also certainly reflects the heightened diversity of college campuses, which better represent the full range of the late adolescent and young adult population. As the homogeneity of college campuses has declined, students must deal with classmates with very different value systems, political perspectives, and styles of argumentation and self-presentation, which may, in turn, raise psychological issues.

The kinds of psychological issues that counseling centers most commonly address – anxiety and depression – are not, of course, simply in students’ heads.  Contextual factors surely exacerbate these issues.  Many students suffer from pressures for perfection that are self-imposed and that arise from parental expectations. Many students, especially in STEM fields, feel underprepared, overwhelmed by academic demands, and beset by competition for high grades. Other students feel out of place or that their college experience is failing to live up to Hollywood-fueled expectations.

And many students, freed for the first time in their life from close adult supervision, must manage their time in unfamiliar ways, negotiate conflicts with friends and roommates on their own, and manage academic (and often financial) stress without much emotional support. Then, too, some students suffer injuries with grave psychological consequences: teasing, taunting, bullying, and sexual assault.

We might also note that some psychological issues are, at their foundation, sociological. These involve the impersonality of the modern university, inadequately addressed gender, ethnic, and racial issues, and the insensitivity, inattentiveness, and unresponsiveness of some faculty to students’ unmet needs, including the need for mentoring and support.

Although I was fortunate in graduate school to study, for a time, with Ernst Prelinger, an eminent authority on psychoanalysis and professor of clinical psychology, I should be the last one to practice psychology without a license. But as someone who has devoted a large part of my professional life to studying the transition to adulthood, I would like to offer the following thoughts.

Precisely because many of the psychological issues that college students face are contextual rather than simply individual, colleges and universities should not simply relegate psychological counseling to a separate office, set off from the academic heart of the university.  

All students, not just those who meet with a counselor or therapist, are going through a host of psychological upheavals during their college years. Institutions need to figure out how best to meet those needs at scale. Part of the answer is to make mentoring a more central aspect of the professorial role, and opportunities for interaction with faculty more common. 

Another part of the answer is to organize group conversations where students, along with trained and supportive faculty or staff members, discuss critical issues in psychological development in early adulthood.

It is not enough for institutions to promote students’ cognitive development or instill marketable skills. Colleges and universities have a parallel responsibility to educate the whole person, promote students’ social, emotional, and interpersonal development, and embrace Arthur Chickering’s call for institutions to help students define an adult identity, learn to manage their emotions, develop mature interpersonal relationships, and chart clear vocational goals.

We have a choice: We can act as if psychological "problems" were confined to a small segment of the student population and left to a separate office, or we can recognize that college is a key time in psychological development and treat our students as the maturing, responsible beings that they are, who would benefit from many more opportunities to interact with caring adults and discuss the key issues that they are grappling with.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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