College freshmen more stressed than ever

By Nancy Pierce

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Courtesy parents.tcu.edu

Courtesy parents.tcu.edu

College freshmen have experienced the highest levels of stress in 25 years and a 3.4 percent drop in overall emotional health from 2009 to 2010, according to a recent study.

An annual survey by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute found the amount of freshman who listed themselves as having above average emotional health fell from 64 percent to 52 percent this year. The results also showed the percentage of students with unemployed fathers was higher than ever, at 4.9 percent, and students with unemployed mothers rose to 8.6 percent.

The report debriefing the results was titled “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” and the survey producing its results was administered to over 200,000 freshmen from 280 different four-year colleges, including the University of Massachusetts.

Linda Deangelo, the assistant director for research at the Higher Education Research Institute and one of the authors of the report said the stress is indicative of freshmen desiring more out of their college experience.

“It seems to be related to the fact that students want more than ever for their college experience to mean something,” she said.

Deangelo believes this craving for more and better services is, in part, based on increasingly expensive college tuition rates.

“There is a real sacrifice for families; they want to make sure they get the most out of their investment,” she said.

Deangelo said students may also be anxious in advance about their prospects for finding a job when they get out of college.

“This is the first generation that knows they may not be able to achieve their parents’ style of living,” she said.

Along with a competitive job market and a cutthroat college application process, Deangelo mentioned other economic stressors, such as financing college. She described the overall decreased funding for higher education and students’ increased financial aid needs as a “perfect storm” for students entering universities.

The survey also found a gender gap in how male and female students ranked their emotional health. 45.9 percent of females said their mental health is above average, while 59.1 percent of males said they had better-than-average mental health. Deangelo acknowledged that, historically, women have reported lower emotional health than men.

She also said the psychological wellness gender gap is actually growing.

“It seems that male students engage in more stress relieving activities, such as playing video games.”

Typically, she added, female students engage in activities that do not necessarily relieve stress. She also suggested “it is possible that women are more in touch with how they feel.”

According to Dr. Harry Rockland-Miller, director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health at UMass, the center sees about nine percent of the student population every year. He also said there has been an increase in students coming in for help over the last 10 years or so.

“It’s a national trend that students are coming in with more psychological needs,” he said.

Rockland-Miller also stated that the most common needs students report are associated with depression and anxiety.

“People certainly experience anxiety around school,” he said.

Rockland-Miller corroborated the study’s findings on the apparent mental health gender gap stating that, in his experience, the clinic tends to see more women than men.

Dr. Christopher Overtree, director of the Psychological Services Center on campus, explained the economic situation is a stressor for the entire country.

“Financial stress is a bigger external stressor known to mental health issues,” he said.

Financial issues, he said, add stress to college students in what he calls being “in the midst of a major life transition.”

He further explained that “all mental health conditions interact with the environment. When there are stressors in the environment, the symptoms can go up.”

He also gave examples of how being in tough financial straits can deter students from making certain choices, such as being able to seek health care, purchasing food, finding a safe place to live, and meeting educational goals.

The results of the study also found that 72.7 percent of students believe the primary benefit of college is to increase earning power.

Freshman psychology major Jillian Montuori said she was not surprised by the results of the survey.

“Getting a college degree is a lot more important now. I would expect freshmen to be more stressed,” she said. She also admitted that she herself felt stressed, specifically with getting homework done and passing exams.

Another freshman, building construction technology major Eric Campbell, said he was surprised by the results.

“I get a comfortable feeling here,” he said. “I have a lot of free time.”

Campbell also said he felt more stressed in high school than in college.

Both Montuori and Campbell said the main reason they’re attending college is to make more money.

“Stress is our body’s coping response for dealing with demands,” said Overtree.

He emphasized the importance of behaviors and lifestyle choices. Behaviors he said could potentially increase stress are lack of exercise, poor diet, lack of sleep and taking on too many demands.

To enable oneself to better manage stress and deal with anxiety, Overtree suggested to “stay active, sleep and eat well and take advantage of support.”

In terms of support, Overtree recommended reaching out to friends and seeking counseling.

Nancy Pierce can be reached at [email protected]