As I approach the end of a teaching career that stretches from the late 1970s into the 2020s, I am struck by a noticeable change in my students. Why, I ask myself, does this generation seem to be more vulnerable to stress, anxiety, trauma and depression? Why do they appear to require greater access to therapy and to accommodations that go beyond extended exam time?
I ask myself, are my impressions illusory or are my students unhappier and more psychologically fragile than their predecessors? If this is indeed the case, why?
Even though much of my scholarship is on the history of childhood and youth, I don’t claim to have well-thought-out, evidence-based answers to these questions. I couldn’t tell you whether what I and others see is a short-term consequence of the pandemic or the Great Recession or reflects certain long-term trends in parenting, family instability, schooling, media consumption or cultural values.
So, I asked our modern-day oracle, ChatGPT and here’s what it told me:
“It’s important to note that claims about ‘psychological fragility’ among college students should be approached with caution, as they can be influenced by cultural narratives and media coverage rather than actual data.”
That certainly strikes me as true.
The text generator then went on. It said that indeed, “some studies have suggested that rates of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression have been increasing among young adults in recent years.” It then offered several potential explanations.
- Increased awareness and destigmatization of mental health issues, which may encourage more individuals to seek help and receive a diagnosis.
- Increased stressors such as academic pressure, social media use and economic uncertainty, which may contribute to the development of mental health issues.
- Changes in parenting and cultural norms, such as a greater emphasis on protecting children from discomfort and failure, which may lead to decreased resilience and coping skills.
- Changes in college culture, such as a greater focus on achievement and a decline in supportive social structures like fraternities and sororities, which may contribute to increased stress and isolation.
ChatGPT concluded with some good advice. It noted “that there is significant individual variation in mental health and resilience,” that “not all college students experience psychological distress,” and that it would be a mistake to assume “that all young adults are inherently fragile or over-sensitive.” It then recommended that I respond to my students with compassion and “evidence-based interventions.”
As a historian, I study change over time, and I, like most historians, view claims of progress with skepticism. It’s not that I, like other historians, fail to appreciate the many measurable ways that life has gotten better. The increase in life expectancy; the declining proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty; the improvements in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of many diseases and medical conditions; and advances in technology and scientific and humanistic knowledge are, indeed, examples of progress.
And yet, like most historians, I take it for granted that advances inevitably come at a price and that progress invariably involves trade-offs. Notice how much of our vaunted progress has resulted in environmental degradation, increasing social inequality and cultural homogenization.
In my own scholarship on childhood and youth, I argue that today’s young Americans are better off than their forebears in every way except those that matter most. Today’s young graduate from high school and college at much higher rates. They smoke less, drink less and are less likely to use illicit drugs. Teen pregnancy rates have also fallen sharply. But by most measures, they are also less happy and less confident about the future.
Growing up, at its best, is an odyssey of self-discovery, a developmental process that involves risk-taking, exploration, increasing responsibilities and competence, and regular social interaction with siblings, peers, kin and nonkin. However, in the interest of child protection, the young do have fewer opportunities for free, unstructured, unsupervised play and exploration. As a result of “the discovery of risk,” young lives are monitored more closely. An increasing share of their interactions are technologically mediated, and kids’ culture has been colonized by commercial culture, marketers and influencers of various sorts.
Don’t get me wrong: young lives are better in countless ways. I grew up in a culture with strong and inflexible expectations about normality, femininity and masculinity that had all kinds of negative effects. But there is also reason to believe that the actual incidence of anxiety disorders, behavioral disorders (involving distractibility and impulsivity), developmental disorders (that impede communication and social interaction), and various symptoms of psychological distress has increased. Although these trends may be a product of greater visibility, attention and diagnosis, a shift in labels or the paradox of progress (that fewer children with disabilities die young), most experts that I have consulted believe that the prevalence of these disorders has in fact risen.
Let’s, then, cut to the chase. What does that mean for colleges?
It seems to me that colleges need to do a better job of tackling two crucial challenges. The first, and the most obvious, is to better address students’ mental health challenges and better support their psychological well-being. The second is to better prepare them for adulthood.
I am of the view that these two challenges are, in fact, interconnected.
Adulthood, you may have noticed, has lost its allure. No one says life begins at 40—at least not without irony.
I’m old enough to remember a very different conception of adulthood. It was a movie-made fantasy, to be sure, but who wouldn’t want to be sophisticated, urbane, worldly and debonair like Cary Grant or Sean Connery or witty, mature, stylish and tantalizing like Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck? I knew of no one who, as a teenager, wasn’t desperate to get out and grow up, even if their vision of adulthood wasn’t their parents’.
I think it’s fair to say that many college students today associate adulthood with being trapped in a rut. My students are convinced that the mass of adults (to use Thoreau’s phrase) lead lives of quiet desperation. They look around and see adults who are stressed and work-absorbed, whose relationships are unstable, who are even more anxious and depressed than they are.
Their view of adulthood is much like John Updike’s: it’s a life stage filled with regret, disappointment, workplace discontent, spousal estrangement, alienation from children and a pervasive sense of malaise.
We certainly need to increase access to mental health services: to clinics, individual and group counseling, crisis intervention and psychiatric care. We also need to reduce stigma and encourage more students to seek support. Wellness programs, including yoga and meditation, and peer mentors and peer support groups can also help. Flexible accommodations for students experiencing mental health challenges are certainly warranted.
But those steps aren’t enough. Because our institutions will never be able to meet the demand for professional counseling, we need to enhance other forms of support and guidance.
In addition to addressing the systemic issues that students struggle with—including financial stress, social isolation and excessive academic pressure—we need to reassert the importance of mentoring. That will require colleges and universities to:
- Institutionalize mentoring by establishing learning communities, specialized support centers (for example, for veterans, transfer students or first-generation college students), undergraduate research teams and thematic interest groups (for example, in the arts, business, computer science, health care, humanities and the life, physical and social sciences) with a dedicated faculty or staff mentor and expanding access to mentored research and internship opportunities.
- Foster a culture of mentorship by promoting the value of mentoring, encouraging students, faculty and staff to engage in mentoring relationships and providing training for mentors in active listening and providing constructive advice.
- Support informal mentoring outside the classroom or office hours through faculty-student lunches, coffee breaks and social events with prospective and current majors.
We also need to do a better job of helping students acquire adult skills. Here are some steps that campuses can take:
- Better integrate the co-curricular and extracurricular activities into the undergraduate experience. It is through these experiences that students acquire the literacies and leadership skills—including the communication and team management skills and the strategic thinking, decision-making and problem-solving skills—that will prepare them for career success after college.
- Offer life skills workshops. These might include workshops in etiquette, self-care (maintaining physical and mental health, managing stress and cultivating resilience), financial management, interpersonal and professional communication, career development, romantic and interpersonal relationships, and family dynamics and emotional intelligence—that is, awareness and management of one’s emotions and the development of empathy and cognizance of other people’s feelings.
- Introduce formal classes that deal with adulthood, including its challenges and joys.
It’s tougher today to become or to be an adult than it was a half century ago. The earlier rule book that defined adulthood has frayed, and no longer does adulthood have well-defined script. It’s up to individuals to chart their life trajectory and to give it meaning and coherence.
No wonder college students are anxious.
Adulthood has become less predictable. But this has made adult life potentially more fulfilling.
We need to do a better job of preparing young people to take advantage of the freedom that adults enjoy. We need to do much more to help them shape their lives in ways that reflect their dreams and desires.
That responsibility is upon us.