The Stressed Years: College Students and Mental Illness

At colleges and universities across the country,  reports are showing an increasing number of students suffering from mental health concerns.  On one hand, more students previously diagnosed with a mental health condition are able to attend college in the first place.  At the same time, college age students are experiencing heightened pressure to manage their newfound independence, balance their academic workload, work, and social life, and preparing for careers post-college.  Dr. Anthony Rostain, along with co-author, B. Janet Hibbs, have written a new book entitled, The Stressed Years Of Our Lives, in  an effort to bring attention and awareness to the mental health issues our college students are facing.  Dr. Rostain notes:

“What we’re seeing now are growing numbers of students coming [onto] campus who are already being treated for mental illness, or who are on various medications and who really have learned to manage their illnesses at home,” he says, “but suddenly they’re on their own and sometimes they’re not following through [with] their own recommended treatments.”

In this book, they explore some of the contributing factors leading up to rising levels of anxiety and depression seen in college students, as well as ways parents can help them “survive and thrive” during their developmental time period.

College Students (And Their Parents) Face A Campus Mental Health ‘Epidemic’

Why are current college students more stressed today?

  • Students today are living in a culture that includes increased exposure to trauma (e.g., school shootings, terrorist attacks), and economic uncertainties related to globalization.
  • A 24/7 news cycle , the internet, and social media.
  • Pressure from parents believing there is only one path to success and there is no room for mistakes to make it into a good college.
  • High college tuition has added to students’ burden as they are increasingly taking out greater loans to pay for college.

How are parents/schools contributing to students stress and anxiety?

  • Students may not have been prepared sufficiently for “expectable challenges” that arise in the transition to college (e.g., being independent).
  • Parents believe they need to push their kids to find their passions and get involved in activities and tough classes to look good on college applications.
  • Parents may be dealing with their own anxiety and transferring that onto their child because of pressure they are feeling for their child to succeed.
  • Students are leaving high school without adequate social-emotional readiness or maturity.

How can we dial back the pressure and help students deal with anxiety?

  • Parents need to adapt to the idea of their child growing up and of letting go. This “letting go” phase may take different phases as their child advances through high school and beyond and can represent a true loss for parents.
  • Parents can be mindful of their own anxious feelings and how they react to what their child experiences.
  • Avoid overscheduling children in the years leading up to college and allow for downtime.
  • Attempt to dial back an exclusive focus on academic achievement.
  • Encourage students to get help from mental health professionals.
  • Let children make mistakes.
  • Broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success.

In the article, The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off, Savannah, now 23, tells her story of how the pressure to succeed in high school and college led her to sucidal thoughts.  Thanks to a wake-up call, her parents encouraged her to drop some of her tough classes and started to focus on well-being.  Savannah is now happily enrolled in culinary school and training to be a chef; a different kind of success that her parents are supporting and celebrating with her.