Too many college students face challenges for which they are emotionally ill-equipped to handle. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. In this piece, from OpEd Project’s Yale Public Voices Fellowship program, two mental health experts and program fellows explain how colleges and universities can better deal with the problem of student anxiety and depression. It was written by Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist and research affiliate of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Robin Stern, a psychoanalyst and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
By Diana Divecha and Robin Stern
You’ve dropped your kid off at college. You may feel sad and nostalgic in spite of newfound freedom, or even that parenting as you know it is behind you. Your child, at the same time, has a new roommate—or two or three—has started classes, and has received grades on her first set of assignments. You exhale, believing that she’s well on her way.
But mid-autumn, when students get their first real feedback on their academic performance, is when college counselors see the first big spike in anxiety. And in general, anxiety on college campuses is on the rise. Why? There’s a lot more going on for students than buying books, writing papers, playing sports, and pledging fraternities and sororities.
In fact, many college students are struggling, even suffering.
College life for most freshmen is emotionally challenging. The security and comfort of old relationships are interrupted, bringing feelings of grief, or loss, or of being at sea—in spite of being surrounded by hundreds (often thousands) of new peers. In the context of those ruptures, the desire to connect can lead kids to make unsatisfying or poor choices, perhaps even socializing with people they don’t really like. Some freshmen bring with them unresolved interpersonal difficulties from high school or family life, which complicates their adjustment.
On a deeper level, at college there are new and often unexpected challenges to their identity and sense of efficacy: Perhaps the freshman was a high performer with career plans in high school and is shocked by the lower grades in college; or maybe it is her first time out of her community and she can’t find people like herself. Many students have financial pressures, leading them to take too many classes at once, or to take on an extra job, or even to skimp on meal plans, leaving them hungry. Rising inequality in an increasingly competitive economy has raised all the stakes.
A 2013 survey of 380 college counseling departments across the country shows that anxiety is the most common presenting problem in their offices, followed by depression and relationship problems. A quarter of students seen in counselors’ offices are on psychotropic medications, and though American students are famously medicated more than students from other countries, it still signals a problem for individuals. And many counselors privately say that their students are surprisingly lonely. Karen Gee, a health educator at UC Berkeley said that on a single day, she saw six students who were painfully, tearfully lonely. “Many have suffered in silence due to the stigma of loneliness,” she said.
A 2013 survey of over 123,000 students across 153 campuses confirmed that over half of students feel overwhelming anxiety, and about a third experience intense depression, sometime during the year. Almost a third report that their stress has been high enough at some point to interfere with their academics—lowering their grades on exams or courses or projects—and 44% say that academic or career issues have been traumatic or difficult to handle. The majority of college students don’t get enough sleep, and half say that they’ve felt overwhelmed and exhausted, lonely or sad sometime during the year. Colleges often blame parents, but the problem is likely more systemic: American children rank 26th out of 29 developed countries on overall measures of well-being.
Colleges are trying to meet students’ emotional needs, but efforts and resources vary. Many universities report upping their budgets, adding staff, increasing their outreach to students, and/or experimenting with innovative programs. This fall, Gee started a “friendliness” campaign at UC Berkeley to help students connect in healthy ways—and when one lonely freshman posted that he wanted to make friends, he received 180 “likes” and ten offers to “hang out.” For those that do take advantage of counseling, the majority say it helps with academic difficulties. But data show that the reach is constrained: Counseling centers serve only about 10 percent of students on campus, and there is an inverse relationship between the size of the college and the ratio of mental health workers to students (in other words, larger campuses have proportionally fewer resources available). According to students, it’s not unusual to experience long wait times (even two to three months) and inconsistent, insufficient meetings.
We can do better.
Students need real emotional skills. There is a large and growing body of research that suggests that the skills of emotional intelligence—the ability to reason with and about emotions to achieve goals—are correlated with positive outcomes across the entire age spectrum, from preschool through adulthood. Emotions affect learning, decision-making, creativity, relationships, and health, and people with more developed emotion skills do better. Among college students, skills of emotional intelligence are linked to engaging in fewer risky behaviors whereas self-esteem is not.
And, our research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence with children in classrooms shows us that these abilities can be taught. In classrooms where children learn to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate their emotions, they are rated as having a greater range of skills: they have better relationships and social skills and are more connected to each other and their teachers; they are better at managing conflict; they are more autonomous and show more leadership skills; and they perform better in academic subjects (it’s easier to concentrate when they feel better).
Colleges would do well to go beyond the therapeutic model and integrate positive emotional skill-building into their orientations, their freshman seminars, and their dormitory lives. Pace University and McCaulay Honors College in New York City are already experimenting with this: Pace is incorporating a short course in emotion skills into their freshman seminar, and McCaulay purchased a mobile app for all of their freshman to help them recognize their feelings, make decisions about how to regulate them, and track them over time. Many graduate schools are beginning to recognize that emotion skills are necessary to their students’ future success. Our neighbor, the Yale School of Management, has incorporated into their program a standardized test of emotional intelligence and a mobile app that teaches emotional skills. Several medical schools have approached us for advice on how to incorporate emotional intelligence into their training of doctors.
When college students are aware of what they’re feeling, they can make conscious decisions about how to manage those emotions, rather than escalate, act out, or medicate. When they identify emotional patterns and clearly see preceding triggers, they can reflect on how and with whom they spend that time and employ strategies to manage the things that “set them off.” When students are anxious and pressured, they can use strategies to calm themselves and proceed on tasks with lowered anxiety. When they inevitably discover new aspects of themselves in college, e.g., sexual or religious or political orientations, they can share these discoveries with trusted family or friends so they don’t feel alone in their journey. When they are more masterful at reading others’ cues, they’ll be better able to resolve interpersonal conflicts. They might not be able to solve the problem, but they can have empathy for the other person, de-escalate, and take care of themselves.
And what about parents?
Parenting is an ongoing renegotiation of the balance between expectations and supports, and parents can recognize that college kids need them in different ways from before. College personnel say that kids’ confidence is undermined when parents intervene on their behalf. Instead, when a campus issue arises, it is better to be a coach from the sidelines and encourage kids to “work the system,” seek out resources, and advocate for themselves. At the same time, kids need to draw on their attachments to parents—and research shows that in families where parents offer it, kids do better in the long run.
Of course, it can take real emotional skills to figure out how to best support a student who is growing and changing away from home. Parents can listen carefully for cues that a student may be struggling. Then parents can set the stage for a successful conversation by “putting on their own oxygen mask first”—that is, pausing, checking in with themselves, and regulating their own—possibly intense—emotions. Without that personal “check-in,” strong feelings of parental anxiety, disappointment, or anger will likely interfere with clear thinking and the outcome of helping the student.
It’s easy to think that once kids go off to college, they are fully-launched and independent adults who no longer need our help. But the needle on adulthood has inched up the age range since medieval times, when children were considered adults as soon as they could dress, feed and toilet themselves. These days, based on brain, psychological, and social development, the field of developmental science considers adulthood to begin at around age 25-30.
Of course parents already invest a lot in their children’s education. But investing in their emotional lives by teaching real skills is an important foundation to their success and can yield great returns. While it certainly won’t solve all of our kids’ problems, we can certainly keep an intentional focus on teaching them skills that they will need to successfully negotiate their freshman experience…and every year of their lives.
Imagine trying to solve complex mathematical problems without the tools of algebra or calculus. Emotions are constantly at play—you’re probably having some right now—but every day we ask our children, ourselves, and each other to solve complex emotional problems with few real tools. An ongoing education in emotions from preschool through college, based on the emerging field of emotion science, will go a long way toward equipping our youth for adulthood—and easing the journey along the way.