Jan. 27, 2011: The emotional health of college freshmen — who feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high school — has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.
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The counselor glanced often at large Westinghouse alarm clock sitting implacably on the desk that separated us. I was perched on the edge of an uncomfortable chair in her severely lit office, trying to quell both my anxiety and my irritation.
“So you feel as if you’re stuck with a black cloud over your head,” the counselor insisted.
“No, no, it’s like a black hole, a sort of traveling abyss. You know, bottomless.” Now I was getting impatient. Was this woman even listening to me?
At long last, the alarm clock went off, in retrospect an incredibly rude signal that our session was at an end. I ran out of the office and into the temporary comfort of a beautiful late autumn day. I never went back.
The year was 1968; the location was the Administration building on the main campus of the university I attended. I had just seen one of only two or three counselors assigned to help the freshman and sophomore classes navigate the treacherous shoals that represented post-adolescent, away-from-home education during particularly turbulent times. Forget flower power and bell bottoms. The boys in my class were terrified of being drafted and sent overseas. The girls in my class were contending with the reality of questionably safe birth control and illegal abortion. Nearly everyone was experimenting with drugs of one kind or another. With three political assassinations behind us, an endless war upon us and an unpredictable future ahead of us, we were contending with a tsunami of political, cultural, and emotional ambiguities. And we still had term papers to turn in.
Less attention was paid and much less time invested in the mental health of college students when I went to school than it is today, not withstanding that several of my classmates took swan dives off buildings or hung themselves in dorm rooms or group homes. One guy–someone on whom I’d had a colossal crush who’d finally asked me out–never made it to our first date. We found him three days later adjacent to a kicked-over stool. Closed garage, St. Louis summer, might have been an accident…but then he and I had served on an all-student panel that was asked to decide whether four students who’d participated in in the torching of an ROTC building should be permanently kicked out of school. That was an awful lot of pressure to bear–from peers, faculty, administration, parents, and local and federal law enforcement.
The annual study referenced above began twenty-five years ago during the halcyon days of the Reagan administration, when our country was in the midst of (perceived) economic growth and opportunity and women were perhaps still basking in the glow of post-feminism. Economic insecurity plays a role in the current results, with students worried about their college loans and their future prospects. It’s disturbing to note that women students surveyed in 2010 seem altogether less confident about their emotional well-being than they did in 1985.
Of special note is that a number of students come into college already stressed from the burden of scholarship mixed with extra-curriculars they carried throughout high school. They are also enormously tough on themselves and bring with them a set of expectations and concerns about competition that weigh heavily. Finally, as is continually pointed out, they are susceptible to an enormous influx of opinion and information coming at them from all sides at all hours of the day and night. There is little quiet time in the head of a college student.
Given how different our times are now from how they were in the eighties, I’m not surprised at these survey results. We are a nation under stress–and thank goodness we know it. The fact is, we’re more attentive to our emotional well-being than ever. We offer more services, more medicines, and more training. Since 9/11, we’ve developed new protocols for responding to immediate traumatic grief –I know because I was involved with New York City agencies tasked to work on some of these . Mental health professionals are more common in the workplace, including the military, and more treatment options are available. Of course we make mistakes, miss problems, fail to treat people who go on to hurt themselves or others. But we are addressing issues that we weren’t twenty-five years ago when times were good and forty-two years ago, when they weren’t–when an anxious and fearful nation sent its young off to college or to war to face their own black holes.
image: Washington University (which happens to be my alma mater)