• September 2, 2015

College Freshmen Report Record-Low Levels of Emotional Health

This year's freshmen reported record-low levels of emotional health, according to the latest results of the University of California at Los Angeles's national survey of first-year undergraduates. At the same time, more students gave themselves high marks for ambition to achieve.

College counselors say the two are clearly related, as students put more pressure on themselves to excel.

The percentage of students reporting good or above-average emotional health dropped from 55.3 percent in 2009 to 51.9 percent in 2010, according to "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2010" survey. That marks the lowest point since 1985, when the survey first asked the question.

Denise Hayes, the president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, says the data confirm national trends.

"The intensity of the issues that students come in with is increasing," says Ms. Hayes, who is also the director of Student Health and Counseling Services at the Claremont University Consortium.

Depression, formerly at the forefront of students' emotional-health concerns, has taken a back seat to anxiety, Ms. Hayes says. Of the freshmen surveyed, 75.8 percent rated their drive to achieve as above average or in the highest 10 percent, and 29.1 percent said they felt overwhelmed in high school.

Ms. Hayes says that increasing ambition plays a central role in students' declining levels of emotional health. For some students, she says, that drive stems from worries over money.

"College tuition is higher, so they feel the pressure to give their parents their money's worth in terms of their academic performance," she says. "There's also a notion, and I think it's probably true, that the better their grades are, the better chance they have at finding a job."

Women were less likely than men to report good emotional health—45.9 percent of women, compared with 59.1 percent of men. Sharon Mitchell, the director of counseling services at the University at Buffalo, says the gender difference likely has to do with how girls and boys are socialized from a young age.

"We may be hearing more about how women are feeling because it's acceptable for us to voice how we feel, whereas boys are taught that you should have everything together, you shouldn't let things affect you," says Ms. Mitchell, who is also a member of the counseling association's board.

The survey also found that students who rate themselves low for emotional health are not much more likely to seek counseling than their peers—11.2 percent of those students reporting low levels of emotional health believed they would need counseling in college, compared with 8.3 percent of students reporting higher levels of emotional health.

Although not every student seeks counseling, many centers are stretching their resources to accommodate those who do. Ms. Hayes hears from colleagues that some centers are spread too thin, with long waiting lists for students and staff positions that remain unfilled month after month. The recommended counseling staff-to-student ratio is one to every 1,000 to 1,500; however, most schools have a ratio closer to one to 1,600, according to the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors.

Ms. Mitchell says preventive measures are one way to reach students who otherwise wouldn't seek counseling.

"It's really important to do outreach to students that doesn't necessarily involve counseling but focuses on the promotion of good mental health," she says.

The University at Buffalo introduces students to mental-health concepts through in-class assignments. Students in a visual-studies class, for example, created public-service announcements on topics such as eating disorders and responsible drinking.

Counseling services at the University of Connecticut has also connected with faculty and staff to provide preventive support to students. Nearly 3,000 members of the campus community have received QPR training—a three-step suicide prevention method that stands for "Question, Persuade, and Refer"—as part of the university's suicide-prevention effort.

"The far majority of students who will kill themselves on a college campus have never spoken to a mental-health professional," says Barry Schreier, director of counseling and mental-health services at the University of Connecticut and a counseling association board member. Staff and faculty members are crucial in suicide prevention because they are "first-line responders" to students, Mr. Schreier says.

For many students, however, too much reliance on others may be the problem. Ms. Hayes wonders whether students today lack the resiliency of students 20 years ago.

"The ways students learned to fend for themselves developmentally—by building up problem-solving skills and coping skills—have been undermined with the attention to supporting them and the immediate contact with parents at all times," she says. "There's a question of whether that's contributing."


1. csgirl - January 27, 2011 at 09:49 am

So how does this tie in with the "Academically Adrift" report that found students are not studying or learning very much, instead spending their time socializing? Is all that recreational time stress-inducing? Are the students waking up and realizing that they haven't improved their skills enough to find a job?

2. superdude - January 27, 2011 at 01:40 pm

We are reaping the whirlwind resulting from the "everyone's a winner" generation of parenting and K-12 teaching. These students THINK they're great but their grade no longer match their fantasy, they feel overwhelmed that things are no longer spoon-fed to them, and feel stressed that Mommy and Daddy aren't right there to fix things for them.

3. redbird19 - January 27, 2011 at 04:35 pm

Wow! How sensitive our first two responders are to the emotional needs of our students! Actually, as someone who works with high-achieving high schoolers, I find this information enlightening, as I see these stressed out kids as they prepare to enter college. And, yes, even the most qualified of them seem to be feeling the strain.

But in the world of "academe," it's not our problem? First, let's talk about the most gifted students, such as those I work with. They are now going through the excruciating wait to find out if they have gotten into the "fantasy" college of their choice. They have applied to dozens of schools, most of which will reject them, not because they're not good enough, but because these schools have, by whatever means necessary, driven up applications simply so that they can confer upon themselves the elite status of "highly selective." In the end, the most elite schools will undoubtedly enroll the same type of students they always have: those with the money to attend. (Many of my students do in fact get accepted to some of the "name brand" schools, but even so they cannot afford to go, and end up at their "safety" schools anyway, but not without feeling just a little disappointed and resentful)

Now, on the other side of the spectrum, we have the high schoolers who have not had the good fortune of attending schools which inspire them and push them to excel. No matter. They will graduate anyway, and colleges will accept them anyway. And whether it's through lack of preparation or lack of passion, they will struggle, and they will complain. But in the meantime, whether they succeed, or until they fail, colleges will collect their money (and the public grant/loan money that they drag with them).

Finally, students on both sides of this spectrum will bring with them the baggage of our half-assed attempts to "manage" whatever emotional difficulties they've experienced already. In most cases, we have fed them drugs for their ADHD, different drugs for their depression, and still more drugs to manage the effects of their other drugs! And the people who have done this are college-educated doctors and counselors who should know that the effectiveness of such "treatment," particularly in the long term, is at best questionable. But actual therapy is expensive.

Actually, I tend to agree with you, "superdude." Many of our students, spoon-fed as they are not just by their parents but by the professionals charged with the responsibility of educating them and/or treating them, do develop some unrealistic beliefs. And while, as college educators, it's not necessarily your fault, it is your problem. As educators, you can continue to grouse and live in your own fantasy worlds (where your classes are filled with the bright, highly-motivated and well-prepared students you WANT to have rather than the ones you do have), or you can do something about it.

While the higher ed industry (and, yes, that's what it has become) isn't responsible for problems such as this, it could at least stop piling on. In other words, it needs to make some hard ethical choices: First, schools need to fix their ridiculous admissions processes so that they aren't using applicants as pawns to satisfy their own ends. Second, (and this is the hard one!), schools need to make a choice: either create a solid core of competent, engaging, and caring instructors who actually like to teach undergraduates and are willing to help them to get from where they are to where they need to be, (and to support these educators when they do fail students who refuse to work), or you quit accepting so many "marginal" students in the first place! You can't have it both ways. And finally, when it comes to students whose are struggling emotionally or psychologically, schools need to work with students (and their families, where appropriate--FERPA is NOT simply a "get out of involving parents" card) to develop meaningful treatment strategies; in other words, those that go beyond taking this or that medication.

Yes, our students could be better. Better prepared, more motivated, less pampered...whatever. But it's also true that college educators can, and should, do better by them as well.

4. superdude - January 28, 2011 at 09:21 am

Redbird, nothing I wrote implies that I don't do anything about it. I just don't think there is a "conundrum" about the issue. In one report, it appears students are not learning anything (or much). In other, students perceive themeselves as in the top 10%.

The cause of both is an overwhelming sense of entitlement, created by the "eveyone is special and a winner" mode of raising and teaching children.

My solution is harsh: I don't allow them to think in these ways, and I disabuse them of the notion that they're all so excellent. It creates stress for them, and they're frustrated and whiney, but it's for their own good. I've heard enough horror stories of Mommy and Daddy calling mangers after their sons/daughters get a bad performance review! I want to be able to say that none of my former students are that pathetic.

5. mbelvadi - January 28, 2011 at 10:56 am

I find it interesting that the article touches on the well-known male/female gap in this area, yet completely fails to draw the obvious connection to the changing ratio of females to males in college enrollment. It leaves unanswered the important question whether the "record low" may be entirely explained by having more females in the response pool compared with previous years' data. If this is statistically the case, then there's no story here, no unusual dip in emotional health, just the same-old story about gender ratio shifts. It would also suggest that solutions to address the problem in the absolute sense may be different (e.g. more support programs designed specifically to attract females) than if the gender difference is ignored in formulating the institutional response.

6. dboyles - January 28, 2011 at 04:01 pm

Any entertainment value the professoriate can afford pales in comparison to other segments found in society. Yet that is exactly how many universities try to pursue educational outcomes: teach to the evaluations, teach to the millenials (after all they are "different"--ha!), provide electronic devices, mobile computing, treat students like the paying customers they are (unfortunately) regarded as, a large volume, low markup commodity. Perhaps if instead students were put to work intellectually (and not just in select classes) they might be able to rediscover purposive behaviors conducive to both education and better mental health? As it is they seem to be lost in a morass of suffocating confusion by universities that focus on "pleasing" and granting their every wish rather than channeling them toward a love of learing, something that takes patience, discipline, perseverance--lost values, lost expectations.

7. lsalavar - February 01, 2011 at 11:41 am

Although stated in a base manner, I think Superdude has a good point. Let's put it this way, when you were 12, who did your laundry? Who did the dishes? Who pays your car insurance? Who pays your cell bill? IF to questions like these you answer "Mom, Dad, the babysitter, grandmom or pop" you are going to feel intense stress when you have to add these tasks to your daily existence. Sounds simplistic but it is true. The more coping skills we offer to our children and young people, the better they will handle stressors (big or little) when they appear and the less stress they will have since they have developed personal confidence. It is true to say "that which doesn't kill me makes me stronger". Again, I wish there was a lighter way to say it, but the only way we learn to deal with life's challenges is to DEAL with them, not have someone else constantly softening the blow (although we can be there for emotional support). If that occurs, we have created a person that has no ability to deal with even the smallest challenge like being on their own, studying hard, making good grade, attempting intimate relationships and working with people that are different from us. These challenges in life compared to paying mortgages, raising children, traffic accidents, maintaining a job, dealing with marriage and/or divorce really are manageable and this message should be explained to our students. I would like to see a study on how many students who are single parents, working full-time, raising children, paying bills AND going to school full-time all at the same time feel they need psychological counseling. Since I am one of these I can tell you first hand, the only thing I really need is sleep! My confidence is high and that is what allows me to juggle all these responsibilities. We need to teach coping skills and confidence. These can only come from learning it's ok to fall down and get back up to try again.

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