Getting into college was supposed to be the hard part. Then, with Mom at a distance, weeks until the first research paper is due, and four long years until the résumés must go out, the good times were supposed to begin.
Think again. The latest couple of classes arriving on campus have been two of the most stressed-out on record, according to annual surveys of college freshmen nationwide by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California–Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute.
Of the group that arrived in fall 2010, noted lead author and CIRP Director John Pryor, "this is the class with the lowest confidence about their emotional health in decades."
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Stress in reasonable doses can be a good thing, notes Brian Van Brunt, past president of the American College Counseling Association. He tells students that it "keeps us working and moving ahead." But when stress is prolonged or overwhelming, it has been implicated in a host of health problems, including impaired immunity and depression.
A survey conducted for the Associated Press and MTV in 2009 showed that 85 percent of college students were stressed; more than 40 percent said they'd felt down, depressed, or hopeless at least several days during the previous two weeks.
Students may respond by trying to drown their sorrows, which is apt to make matters worse. If freshmen are showing up "already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health, faculty, deans, and administrators should expect to see more consequences of stress, such as higher levels of poor judgment around time management, alcohol consumption, and academic motivation," says Pryor.
Those who counsel students see drug abuse and risky sexual behaviors, too. It's a vicious cycle, says Kim Phillips, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Western Kentucky University. "These unhealthy coping mechanisms most always end up leading to an increase in stress, which in turn may lead to anxiety or depression," she says.
The economy has been a huge culprit. Students are showing up with still-high expectations for college, Pryor says, but feel unable to afford key parts of their wish list—study abroad, for example. They're already fearful, too, about being able to pay back their student loans.
It certainly doesn't help that parental unemployment hit the highest level in 2010 since UCLA's freshmen survey first asked the question in 1971 and fell only slightly this past year. Some 53 percent of students reported that they've borrowed to help pay the bills, and 70 percent are relying on grants and scholarships.
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On the one hand, the pressure is on from the outset to begin enriching that résumé. John Pfister, Dartmouth College's assistant dean of first-year students, and a professor there for nearly 20 years, now has students coming in during their first term looking for help planning triple majors. On the other hand, there's more of a sense of hopelessness, as though college is "a gamble," says Van Brunt. It can be disheartening, he says, "to see your friend making $25,000 as a manager ... at the mall while you're basically living in poverty."
Meanwhile, the responsibilities that come with sudden independence—managing the work flow and social pressures, forming relationships with professors, negotiating with roommates who play Ke$ha on an endless loop at 2 a.m.—can produce enormous anxiety in students who have limited practice standing on their own two feet, psychologists say.
Those whose parents have been overly protective, leaving them without much experience solving their own problems, tend to be especially vulnerable; they're more apt to be dependent and highly anxious, and less apt to be open to new ideas than their peers, according to personality testing of college freshmen by researchers at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
"Is that going to make a successful college student?" asks Keene State psychologist and study author Neil Montgomery. "No, not exactly. It's really a horrible story at the end of the day."