College students are stressed. It’s axiomatic. They always have been, and they always will be. College is a stressful endeavor.
Anxiety or Reality?
So why are students now so much more anxious, to the point where it’s being considered an anxiety epidemic? Are they really more anxious, or are they just more in touch with what’s going on in themselves?
College students are my life. Literally. I work with them, I teach them, and I raised 2 of them. The anxiety among college students is with me everywhere I go in my small college town. I see it in the exhausted clerks at my grocery store, the stressed students studying in my library, and in the frantic texts from my kids asking about financial aid eligibility or complaining about roommate issues.
I suspect, from my vast experience as an adult human with no training in psychology but who spends a lot of time with students, that it’s a combination of both. The young adults entering college today are different from previous generations in several ways.
They’ve grown up with therapy.
The idea of seeing a counselor or prioritizing mental health doesn’t seem absurd or “weak” to them in the same way it did to even millennials or Gen-Xers. They see it with their parents, their friends; they hear about it from musicians and YouTubers; it’s ingrained in their pop culture. Even those students who haven’t seen a therapist or counselor before arriving at college are comfortable with the concept and familiar with the reasons one would want to seek therapy.
The world is crazy.
All right, yes, the world has always been crazy. But this feels so much worse than it did when our biggest worry was that our president being “misunderestimated.” And I don’t think the anxiety related to our world is limited to college students. Between rising financial stress, the strain of living in a dying former democracy, the constant and relentless influx of information delivered directly to our pockets or wrists, we’re all a little crazier than we used to be.
Why should we be surprised our students are stressed and anxious when we’re living with the stresses of trying to pay for their college tuition while still paying off our own while juggling caring for aging parents with daycare drop-offs, lurching from temp job to temp job in a gig economy, at the same time watching the Boomers – who walked directly into stable careers with a college degree they could pay for by working summers – destroy the climate?
While the wealthier among us see the economy as doing well, it’s definitely not trickling down to those of us who live on the lower end of the income scale. Today’s students know that a college degree is not an automatic ticket to a decent-paying job, and unlike most previous generations, they don’t have an automatic expectation that they will be able to do better than their parents did.
I think it’s likely that the “anxiety epidemic” facing college students was inevitable, given the world they grew up in. They face challenges that were unimaginable when I was in college. It’s a brave new world, and I’m not sure anyone is prepared to face it.