Thursday, August 30, 2018

The mental health crisis among university students is going to get worse

For the past few months I have been travelling in North America and the UK, for a mixture of work and holiday. In a range of professional and social settings I have had conversations with different people associated with universities: faculty, students, parents, and NGOs. It is amazing (and disturbing) how many times one subject keeps coming come up: student mental health problems. It was never me who brought up the subject and I don't think any of the people who did bring it up knew that I am interested in the issue, partly because of my own struggles. Two important questions people have asked are:

Has the incidence of student mental health problems increased or is it just that reporting of problems has increased?

Is the situation likely to improve in the near future?

Unfortunately, I think the problems have substantially increased and that they unlikely to decrease in the near future. I hope I am wrong. But, I think that there are a multitude of inter-related social, economic, and political changes that form a toxic cocktail for students.

To illustrate the extent of the problem and some of the compounding issues it is worth reading these two articles, both of which almost have a (tragic) surreal feel.

Why are suburban super-students burning out in college? These Main Line therapists say anxiety is high – and all around us
Philadelphia Inquirer

Feeling Suicidal, Students Turned to Their College. They Were Told to Go Home
New York Times
[Comments are worth reading too]

What are the origins of the crisis?
I think it may be a combination of the factors below. In isolation I doubt one or two of them would create such a large problem, but when you put many together, life starts to get very difficult. To what extent you think some of them is a problem may also depend on what you believe is "normal" and "healthy". The factors are listed in random order. Some are inter-related.

A winner takes-all society.
Everyone wants to be a winner and a celebrity. But most people are not. At the crass level, this cultural shift is reflected in TV shows involving singing or cooking competitions. It is also reflected in increasing economic inequality,  where the wealth of the upper class (the one per cent) is increasing dramatically and the lower middle class is ballooning, including graduates with massive debts from student loans. The pressure to succeed is immense and the despair of "failure" is greater.

Social media.
Students are comparing themselves to their "friends" and struggling to project a perfect and successful life. Interpersonal conflict is escalated because social media is a flawed medium for civil and meaningful communication. Rather that talking to other students before or after class students are staring at their phones.

Frustration from or fear of unfulfilled expectations.
University marketing departments portray life on campus as a collection of beautiful young people sitting around on lawns on bright sunny days having meaningful conversations before they graduate to high-paying and fulfilling jobs. A student at an over-crowded state university soon discovers they are sitting in a lecture hall with hundreds of students and no one seems to care whether they are there or not. Although they were told their degree would be a launching pad for a "career", many discover it is actually hard to get any sort of job, let alone something related to their major. No wonder they are depressed!

Excessive screen time.
It is bad for your brain and addictive. You get overstimulated. For some there is addictive content such as on-line games and pornography. It cuts into time for personal relationships.

Breakdown of family life.
Parents are increasingly absent, whether literally, emotionally, or practically, while children are growing up. This decreases students sense of identity, stability, ability to navigate life, including form meaningful relationships, and resolve conflict.

Alcohol and drug abuse.
This may actually be decreasing. However, it is still rampant, and compounds all of the other problems. Furthermore, mental health problems and substance abuse become intertwined.

Sexual harassment and assault.
Reporting has certainly increased. Again, the prevalence of this problem compounds all of the issues above.

What do you think? Have the problems increased? If so, what are the causes?

1 comment:

  1. University of Bath study

    The Link Between Neoliberalism, Perfectionism, and Mental Health Disorders