Mental Illness and Young Adults: Why College Campuses are in Crisis

teenLet’s talk about the mental health of young adults in the United States.  It seems to me, from what I’ve read and observed in my corner of the country, that we are headed for a crisis if something doesn’t change.

Over the last 50 years, the suicide rate for older teens and young adults has tripled.   Nearly one in five college students is on some type of psychotropic medication; Over half of all college students report “overwhelming anxiety;” Nearly a quarter of all students report engaging in acts of self injury.  College counseling centers cannot keep up with the demand for services.

The social disappointments, academic setbacks, and homesickness familiar to anyone who has gone to college are, more recently, experienced as psychological devastation.

“For increasing numbers of students all across the United States, disappointment now balloons into distress and thoughts of suicide. Lacking any means of emotion regulation and generationally bred on the immediacy of having needs met, they know no middle psychic ground: Mere frustration catapults them into crisis.”  – “Crisis U” Psychology Today

Current psychology accepts that there is a subset of the population that does not have the “emotional buffers” to sufficiently tolerate some of the more distressing parts of life. Those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) have “burned psychological skin”  such that minor emotional bumps and bruises feel like scathing catastrophes.  When confronted with life’s failed tests and ended relationships, their fragile psyches are apt to think suicide. (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which concentrates on mindfulness, tolerating distress, and interpersonal skills training, can be very effective for these individuals.)

But BPD has only historically existed in less than 2% of the population.

So what exactly is going on in our culture and in our psyches that makes “life” suddenly so legitimately devastating for so many young adults?  Here are a few of my thoughts on this complex subject:

Stressors have increased. 

  1. The pressure to be perfect. Social media and the internet have made the world much more invasive and public.  The act of occasionally catching a glimpse over the “Jones’s” fence has now become a never-ending onslaught of false bodies, false happiness, and false success of which to make personal and deflating comparisons.  Instead of “Keeping up with the dorky Jones’s when they get a new Subaru,” it’s now “Keeping up with the Kardashians and every other person on social media when they make it seem like all of life is effortless and beautiful and fun.”
  2. The pressure to survive financially.  Then there’s the economic climate in which we live.  No longer do college students have the “safetly net” of working at the factory or joining the family business if their grades don’t measure up.  Additionally, tuition and board now cost, on average, $14k annually for a state school and $38K for a private school.   There is, many times, enormous pressure to surpass peers in the same job market by maintaining a dazzling GPA: Repayment of that $100k loan depends on it. College students understand what they are up against in a slow economy when supply of college-educated workers out-numbers the demand in many industries.
  3. Constant screen-time is training young brains to be ill-equipped for the academic demands of college.  The internet, social media, and electroninc games have trained our brains to scan, surf, and shift; not to singularly focus, and sustain attention.  Let’s face it, practicing derivative equations and writing essays on “Pushkin in Russian Literature” are less gratifying (even on a neurological level, with less activation in the brain’s dopamine reward center) than opening a Snapchat message or watching Jenna Marbles. For young brains that have been raised on instant gratification and highly stimulating “brain-candy,” the academic demands of college are infinitely more difficult.  Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic article on this phenomenon is actually required reading on some college campuses.

Resilience has Decreased.

  1. We stopped normalizing discomfort in favor of shielding our kids from pain.  Years ago, when a child said he was anxious about giving an oral book report, his parent said, “Here’s a bag in case you need to throw up.  Anyway, have a great day, Johnny!”  Now we slap a diagnosis on it and request that Johnny gives a written report instead.  (Don’t get me wrong, mental illness is a real thing, but I could write another blog post on how anxiety is vastly over-diagnosed and overly-catastrophized.  Discomfort and anxiety is normal, guys.  If we didn’t have it, our species would have been devoured by Saber Tooth Tigers ages ago.)  And, unfortunately, these kinds of tensions and discomforts become worse the more we are protected from experiencing them. According to a handful of teens that I have in therapy, a local high school is actually allowing students to leave the classroom when the Health curriculum centers around suicide, in an effort to protect sensitive students from possible upset. This is giving our impressionable youth the message that ignoring the very topics we need to be discussing is favorable to tolerating sadness and discomfort. At another nearby high school, videos depicting the burning buildings on 9/11 and frank discussions about the Holocaust are apparently not a part of the History curriculum for fear that such material would be too distressing. OF COURSE many older teens don’t think they can handle life, because WE ARE TELLING THEM THEY CAN’T HANDLE LIFE.
  2. In an effort to be empathic and loving, we have relegated our children  to the  “powerless victim” role.  If a kid is being mean, we no longer say, “Billy’s gonna be Billy, and that has nothing to do with you, so just steer clear of Billy and focus on something else.”  Instead it’s, “Billy the Bully is a big, rotten Doodoo-head, and you, my precious snowflake, must be so mortally wounded.  Let’s talk about how hurt you must feel long enough to truly solidify your victimhood and powerlessness.”   (Read more on this here.) This “How dare he! You must be so irreparably hurt” message is continued through our “trigger warnings,”  “political correctness,” and “ruffle no feathers mentality.” While a certain level of respect for others is appreciated, our culture automatically insists that our youth are ill-equipped to handle the grimy and off-putting parts of humanity. Imparting the assumption that people are helpless victims of life, with little ability to react and rise above, is robbing our children of vital protection from depression.  When I pointed out that the aforementioned high school’s History curriculum (the one that dilutes 9/11 and the Holocaust) seemed infantilizing by assuming that nearly-adult students could not withstand learning about critical parts of history, the teens I was addressing seemed annoyed:  “Yah! How dare they assume that we wouldn’t be able to handle it?!!??”

My intention with this article is to begin a larger discussion on the cultural stressors and barriers to resiliency that exist for our young people.  Do you have any thoughts on this subject?  I welcome your comments below.

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8 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Young Adults: Why College Campuses are in Crisis

  1. I find such a dismissive attitude toward the very real stressors faced by this generation rather disturbing. Did you read a recent Harvard report which revealed just how many young women are sexually assaulted on campus? Universities have traditionally ignored these types of problems and covered them up, ignoring and downplaying reports.
    Kids, as you mentioned, aren’t guaranteed a job coming out of college the way previous generations thought they were. The supports, both socially and with the family, just aren’t there. I do not see parents patting their kids on the heads. The “special snowflake syndrome” is rare, in my experience, and yet many of my friend’s teens have faced anxiety and other issues. Often it seems related to the constant onslaught of fear mongering in the media, the dire warnings about the state of the environment, the political climate, the economy, and so on.

    Maybe it’s not the kids that’re the problem. Maybe it’s that the adults need to get their collective crap together and stop treating kids like their problems aren’t real or don’t matter.

    • I just wrote a long reply and it disappeared. Thank you for pointing out these real stressors: 1 in 5 female students are victims of sexual assault. In 2/3 of those cases, drinking is a factor, and drinking is both a cause and a symptom of mental distress. So many facets to this, but mainly I don’t want to minimize the distress of a sexual assault victim. This stressor should not be overlooked or minimized. I do, however, also stand by the points I made about our society lacking resilience- perhaps it’s just in my corner of the country, but I see examples of it every day in my life and my clinical practice.

  2. I agree with a lot of this. I work with 20-somethings, and I see the lack of resilience, persistence, and grit in many ways. Some of them will get a B- in a class when they really should’ve gotten a C at best, and they will challenge the grade because it wasn’t an A. Ironically, if they’d put the time and effort they’re spending on challenging the grade into doing their course work, they would’ve made an A. When you try to deliver positive criticism of something they did, telling them what they did right before you tell them what they did wrong, they will only hear the good part, not the part they need to work on. It’s frustrating. At the same time, I do see that they are going into a crappier economy with higher student debt than I ever had to face, so I feel for them. However, that shouldn’t be an excuse to lie on the floor and do nothing – it should be an incentive to light a fire under one’s ass and make things happen. And some of them don’t have the skills to do that.

    In terms of anxiety being over-diagnosed, however, I think we have to be careful about how we frame this. As a Gen-Xer, I adopted a suck-it-up-and-deal approach to my life until I hit a very low point in my late 30s and basically had a nervous breakdown. It was only when I started acknowledging my anxiety as a legitimate problem that I started learning better coping skills and began feeling better. I think it’s good to encourage kids to unpack their feelings and then, instead of just wallowing in victimhood, use that insight to make more constructive choices.

  3. My cousin committed suicide just as he was about to start college. He had little support from his alcoholic parents, likely an undiagnosed learning disability and no where to go. I don’t understand why there aren’t more supports available to young people. It’s the next crisis. Great article.

  4. LOL!!! I love it!!!

    I actually have mental illnesses (MDD, GAD, AND PTSD) and developmental/social issues (ASD).

    When I was terrified to give an oral report as a kid (that whole selective mutism thing), do you know what the answer was?? “Practice, have confidence, and work really hard on everything else and then if you get a poor grade on the oral report your overall grade will still b fine.”

    OK, I was 14 before I made it through a presentation without freezing up and slinking back to my seat while classmates jeered and threw things. OK, I was 17 before I could do it cogently and actually present something instead of blindly rattling off what I’d memorized at a dead run. OK, I’m 38 and I still sometimes shut down in high-conflict situations.

    But I can darn well speak in front of a group, talk to strangers, and do things like walk into McDonald’s and talk with the cashier.

    It sucked getting here. I have self-image problems. But they’re not nearly as bad as they could have been. Thanks to my family for making me endure all that suckage.

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