What Makes College Students Anxious?
In 1947, when W. H. Auden published The Age of Anxiety in the shadow of the First and Second World Wars, it made sense to argue that the world was an unstable and disturbing place. That was especially true for younger generations, who were forcibly drafted into those wars, and into other wars in the 1960s and 1970s. In contrast, one might expect today's youth to be less anxious. Yet scientific journals are filled with articles debating whether young people today are even more anxious and neurotic than their earlier counterparts.
Much of this scientific debate has revolved around statistics from annual surveys, but another route is to travel back in time and examine whether people worried less intensely and had fewer concerns. Although literal time travel is impossible, a researcher can interview people who’ve had long careers in counseling and have treated similar clients for most of that career. I took this route and interviewed several psychotherapists who had long tenures at college counseling centers to probe some questions about rising anxiety. You can find the full interview transcripts of my interviews online.
This method allowed me to probe into why college students, a relatively privileged group, might be more anxious than they formerly were. Counselors may not only have distinct recollection of changes in their work—more clients with more severe complaints—but also keep statistical records that show whether things have changed over time.
Was Anxiety Going Up Or Down?
On the question of rising anxiety, directors were almost unanimous—college students in the U.S. are more anxious than they were a generation ago. Some directors brought data to the table, documenting more demand. One recalled, “To the extent that we refer on a fairly regular basis to an intensive outpatient program that specializes in OCD, we're just seeing presentations at a rate and at an intensity that we never used to see before.” She had “close to zero” referrals when she started her 27-year career. A West Coast psychiatrist whose career stretched back 40 years mentioned that he and several colleagues had repeatedly witnessed students being more fragile or sensitive than those from previous generations.
When they asserted these facts, counselors also noted that there is less stigma around seeking help and that colleges are now more accessible, which means more economically stressed students and students with disabilities, who carry additional burdens. On top of that, my interviewees noted, more students enter college with a pre-existing diagnosis.
When I mentioned several potential causes, center directors agreed that competition had risen because a larger population was striving to get into roughly the same number of college and job slots. College rankings have also become a legitimate arbiter of worth. Some talented students are upset they’re attending a college that is ranked 20th. They had been aiming for the top five.
And Then There Are The Parents…
There was also some consensus about helicopter parenting. Even though one center director argued that parents were an effective battering ram against an unresponsive bureaucracy, many told me that technology has made it easier for parents to give advice and students to solicit advice, which means students make fewer independent decisions. Parents now attempt to initiate and monitor their children’s therapy sessions! Even though this interference violates privacy statutes, some tried to fake signatures on waivers to get around those restrictions.
On the other hand, center directors were more ambivalent about whether students were more focused on gaining external approval than they formerly were. A few directors stated that their clients had unrealistic ideals—some students believed that indecision about one’s life course signified failure.
Therapists were also ambivalent about the distinctiveness problem, which is the difficulty of achieving something unique, which sets one apart from the anonymous crowd. Some students have been insulated from failure experiences, giving them the unrealistic sense that they could easily achieve something distinctive.
But Wait, There’s More…
Of course, there was also the perennial challenge of coping with the small fish in a big pond: overachieving high-school students find they are merely average college students, having enrolled in a selective college where everyone used to be above average.
Lastly, center directors agreed that societal problems and threats can impinge upon students. This thesis, which comes from Jean Twenge’s contentious but influential research, is that terrorism, unemployment, wars, and the AIDS epidemic heightened mental distress in younger generations. The center directors whom I interviewed stated that police shootings and the election campaign of Donald Trump were particularly stressful because students tend to be progressive and sympathize with disadvantaged groups. They noted that economic recessions can be more painful today because students have greater debt—and higher aspirations.
Furthermore, in an earlier time, students who lived in dorms were also set apart from the world, but social media has erased that boundary—students can get exposed to disturbing news several times a day.
The most striking finding was that the boundaries between parents and students have now blurred to the point that college students, who are nominally young adults, are now in a phase of extended adolescence. Can we reverse this trend so that students once again use their college years to practice some fledgling autonomy before they become adults? If that goal isn’t attainable, colleges may at least take some steps to discourage helicopter parenting. Even so, overly concerned parents are just one factor; we may have to get used to a world where college students, like adults overall, are more frequently diagnosed with a mental illness.
For Further Reading
Martin, C. C. (2020). Why do college counselors perceive anxiety as increasing? A semi-structured examination of five causes. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, https://doi.org/10.1080/87568225.2020.1753611
Reed, K., Duncan, J. M., Lucier-Greer, M., Fixelle, C., & Ferraro, A. J. (2016). Helicopter parenting and emerging adult self-efficacy: Implications for mental and physical health. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25, 3136–3149. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-016-0466-x\
Sharkin. B. S. (2012). Being a college counselor on today’s campus. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
Chris C. Martin is Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Oglethorpe University. He immigrated to the U.S. after living in Saudi Arabia and India.