Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Hyper-stress on college campuses: a culture of high achievement leads to increased rates of mental illnesses

By Christin Howard

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Runs with Scissors/Daily Collegian)

(Runs with Scissors/Daily Collegian)

Rates of mental illnesses, especially anxiety and depression, have spiked drastically among young people, especially college students, in the last couple of years. According to a study published in 2013 by the American College Health Association, a whopping 57 percent of collegiate women and 40 percent of collegiate men reported feeling overwhelmingly anxious. Likewise, 33 percent of women and 27 percent of men reported feeling seriously depressed.

This has serious ramifications, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one quarter of college students have thought about suicide. In fact, the suicide rate among young adults aged 15-24 has tripled since the 1950s. It’s estimated that 1.5 percent of college students have attempted suicide and over 1,000 suicides occur on college campuses per year.

I am no psychologist, but some of the reasons behind these increasing rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are painfully obvious to most people attending a university or college in the United States. Both the drive to be successful in college and the daunting fear of searching for a job or graduate school afterward have driven students to overwork themselves to the point of mental and emotional degradation. Today, in order to be a “serious” student and build a competitive resume, you have to achieve in academics, extracurricular activities and internships at a breakneck speed.

One of the main reasons for this high-intensity academic regime is the ever-increasing cost of tuition in colleges, both private and public, across the United States. In 1975, the average total cost of tuition, fees and room and board at a private institution, adjusted for inflation, was $16,213 a year and $7,833 per year at a public institution. In 2015, the average cost at a private institution rose to $43,921 a year and public college also increased to $19,548 a year. This means that for college-aged students who are not upper-middle class or higher, paying for college is a huge, often insurmountable, struggle. As a result, students or their families, and sometimes both, are often forced into debt in order to pay for college.

This often means that there is a great need to legitimize such an exorbitant expenditure. Students feel as though they need to maximize their time in college in order to excuse such a financial burden. This means that on top of achieving highly in the academic realm, you also must work at internships, manage leadership roles in extracurricular activities, apply for scholarships and, more often than not, also work to support yourself financially. All of this can contribute to feelings of constant stress and anxiety.

If a student is graduating with significant debt, the need to create a stacked resume is even more acute due to the fact that you may need to graduate with a well-paying job in order to keep yourself afloat financially. Unfortunately, entering the job market today is a terrifying prospect. Even without debt, it is daunting to find a job that pays a livable wage in your field of study.

Furthermore, if you are planning on going to graduate school you must be just as high-achieving in order to get the grants and scholarships needed to attend it without amassing more debt.

Even for students not burdened by financial stress, the need to out-perform and out-achieve in order to find a job is still just as oppressive. The system is set up in such a way that students constantly feel at odds with each other. There is relentless competition for the best internships, the best grades, the best relationships with professors and the best positions in your extracurriculars.

Additionally, there is the stress surrounding the prospect of failure. One failed test, one absence from an important class or one sub-par paper and your carefully designed future comes crumbling down at your feet. This feeling of needing to be the best, and of not allowing yourself a moment to be sick or tired or sad, lends itself to a constantly stressed mindset.

Mental and emotional stability is something that is cultivated through a healthy lifestyle, and it takes both work and time to cultivate healthy living habits that positively contribute to your emotional well-being. Unfortunately, in this high-stress environment there is often not enough time to take care of your physical and mental health and things such as eating right, exercising and sleeping enough are frequently the first things to be sacrificed when you are highly stressed.

Students are often too busy to take personal time or to work on projects or hobbies that are not directly related to benefitting their “future.” We are so obsessed with school that we forget we are also supposed to be learning about who we are and how to function and cope as adults.

College should not just be about cramming information into your head, nor should it be about creating a paper version of yourself to present to the world, but it should be about how to live in a physically, intellectually and emotionally healthy way.

People wonder why drugs such as Xanax and Adderall are making such a dangerous comeback on college campuses, but I believe the answer is very straightforward. Xanax is an anti-anxiety drug, and who among us does not suffer from anxiety and stress throughout the week? Likewise, who among us has not found themselves with more work than they physically could do without the aid of Adderall or Concerta or some other stimulant?

All of this comes together to form a generation of people who are over-stressed, over-worked, over-medicated (either by themselves or by doctors) and physically unhealthy. The college institution is creating a legion of people who have no idea how to take care of themselves and whose only skill is to work themselves to the bone.

There are no easy solutions to these issues, as they are systematic problems. Still, we as college students should all realize that we have the opportunity of a four-year trial run at adulthood in which we can take advantage of not only intellectual, but also emotional and physical teachings.

Christin Howard is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Hyper-stress on college campuses: a culture of high achievement leads to increased rates of mental illnesses”

  1. Katie on September 29th, 2016 10:41 am

    The mental illness rates are more likely going up because more and more people are applying to college and colleges are accepting more and more people. Just as segments of the population who in the past did not apply to college are now applying, colleges are accepting students that they did not have to consider in the past. By taking in a broader swath of the population, colleges create student bodies more representative of the general population. Is the rate of mental illness among college students different from that of the general US population of people ages 18-22? Are people who are not of traditional age but enrolled in college developing mental illness at rates different from people their age who are not attending college? Unless you know that the answers to those questions, you cannot blame colleges and universities for the problem.

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