Are College Students Emotionally Fragile?

Why Anxiety and Depression Rates Continue to Rise on College Campuses

originally published for the Times-Delphic on 9.14.17

The college students of previous generations were responsible, critical-thinking go-getters, but today’s students seem to struggle more and more with mental health problems.

While some are quick to question the stability of today’s college students, there may be unconsidered factors that come into effect.

Anxiety and depression rates amongst college students are steadily rising, leaving university counseling centers overbooked and understaffed. According to an article published by Psychology Today in 2015*, more than 22 percent of collegians seek therapy at least once a year, and colleges are now the top employers of psychologists and counselors. What has caused this steady decrease in mental stability amongst today’s twenty-somethings?

According to psychologist and professor Dr. Bryan Hall, the human brain is still very much developing in the college years, which plays a significant role in the way a young person responds to stress.

“One of the major findings about brain development in this age group is that the emotional part of the brain tends to be more dominant as compared to the brain of an older, more mature adult,” Hall said. “Someone in their late teens or early twenties is more likely to go first to the limbic (emotional) system in the brain and not necessarily think with their frontal cortex [which is in charge of logical thinking]. The logic is there, it’s just that neuro-biologically, there’s a disconnect between those centers of the brain until people get farther along in their twenties.”

 However, the problem isn’t exclusively internal. There are many outside factors in today’s society that contribute to a college student’s declining mental health.

“These problems are not occurring in a vacuum,” Hall said.  “Externally, the world around college students tends to be very stressful. It’s not that they haven’t encountered stress in their lives before but this is a whole new ball game. They’re going to college, becoming independent, having more weight on their shoulders, possibly working or being involved in extracurriculars—it’s just a lot, and the stress from those and other life events can pile up on people.”

“There’s something fundamentally different about the brain of someone who is experiencing stress, and there’s research now that is looking into how stress can lead to expressions of anxiety or depression. ”

Another glaring issue among young people today which could potentially impact a student’s mental health is the influence of social media. Melissa Nord, a counselor at the Drake University Counseling Center, says that the conveniences of being constantly plugged in can come at a cost.

“There is a lot of comparing yourself to other people [online],” Nord said. “That’s the perceived image on social media, that everyone is out doing all of these things and everyone is happy, and it makes people think, ‘why can’t I be that way?’”

Nord also mentioned that the increase in instant gratification produced by social media may potentially be creating an impatience and inability to wait for a difficult situation to improve.

“Millennials right now are so used to having the internet and being totally plugged in all the time, so coming to college can create some difficulties because there’s not that immediate gratification,” Nord said.

So how do we stop the rise in mental health problems, anxiety and depression among college students? Dr. Christopher Kliethermes, a neuroscience and psychology professor at Drake, says that it’s not an issue someone should fight alone.

“There’s something fundamentally different about the brain of someone who is experiencing stress, and there’s research now that is looking into how stress can lead to expressions of anxiety or depression,” Kliethermes said. “The way I view a mental disorder is, your thoughts and your behaviors come from your brain, and your brain can get sick. If your heart gets sick, you go to a cardiologist. When your brain gets sick, you want to go to someone who knows what they’re doing with it.”

Drake has a lot of resources for students struggling with mental health conditions, from the Health and Counseling Centers and the Student Success Center to helpful and caring professors and advisors. Hall says that the first step is to reach out.

“As an instructor, if students are struggling, I want to know about it,” Hall said.” If there’s something I can do to help them, I want to be able to do that. In my experience, students are just in a unique time of their lives where they need more support.”

The Counseling Center and Health Center are located on Carpenter Avenue and are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Samantha Jones