Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Anxious Nation

More news this week about anxiety among college students:
Anxiety has now surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students, though depression, too, is on the rise. More than half of students visiting campus clinics cite anxiety as a health concern, according to a recent study of more than 100,000 students nationwide by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

Nearly one in six college students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety within the last 12 months, according to the annual national survey by the American College Health Association.
Why would that be?
The causes range widely, experts say, from mounting academic pressure at earlier ages to overprotective parents to compulsive engagement with social media.
Maybe, but I know anxious young people who had neither overprotective parents nor excessive academic pressure. So I puzzle over this.

I wonder if the gloomy atmosphere in the nation as a whole contributes. These days our whole politics seems based on scaring people about things beyond their control (terrorists, Obamacare, global warming); when was the last time anyone ran for office by saying that things are great? Whole subcultures have grown up around various paranoias, from vaccines to black helicopters; is that part of our anxiety? Or does that just provide a focus for nebulous fears that spring from the general disorientation of modern life?

6 comments:

G. Verloren said...

College tuitions are monstrous these days, and there's a whole slew of predatory businesses reaping profits on the side.

Student loans are of course the most visible part of the problem, but there are a million ways to fleece young people trying to get an education. Housing is always in short supply, so room fees and private rents are through the roof. If you live on campus, dorms often don't have kitchens, so students are left with the options of either eatting out all the time or signing up for a meal plan at whatever price the school chooses. Parking is scarce, so people can charge what they please for access to private spots, and city governments love to zealously enforce overly restrictive parking rules on public ones, filling their coffers via fines. Laundry is coin operated. Public transportation is inconvenient but not inexpensive, assuming it exists at all. Internet access is poor and exorbitant. And in a world where .PDF files are a technology that exists, it is absolutely criminal that students pay hundreds of dollars each semester for textbooks.

Many kids are only able to make ends meet because, in addition to their after school jobs, they also get financial aid - which then they worry about getting revoked if they fail to meet various requirements. Even then, many are still sorely overworked and often unable to eat much better than instant ramen. They're terrified by the thought of getting sick - it could cost them their job, or cause them to flunk a class, and that might even make them lose their financial aid. Commuting gives them nightmares - either bumming rides from friends or coworkers, trying to work their schedules around insufficient public transit, or fighting to afford upkeep and maintainence on their own privates vehicles while paying staggeringly high insurance rates often due purely to their age bracket. A traffic accident would be disaster.

And on top of everything, not only are college degrees no longer worth what they used to be (despite costing more than ever), schools also don't care one bit what sorts of job prospects exist for their graduates. They'll hand out 500 diplomas for a job field that they know for a fact only has a dozen new openings every years, and they won't bat an eye or utter a whisper while doing it.

I don't think "the gloomy atmosphere of the nation" is the problem. I think the transformation of our education system into a profit mill is the problem. I think the absurd pressure for young people to throw themselves under mountains of debt to get college degrees that today are little better than high school diplomas is the problem. I think require students to live in squalid poverty, hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck, is the problem.

pootrsox said...

I suspect Mr/Ms Verloren has, in fact, pointed out the significant causes of college anxiety.

In 1961, I received a full academic scholarship to Temple University. Temple was then private; over the next 4 years it became "state-related" along with Pitt and Penn State. The tuition for my freshman year was $700, as I recall.

I lived within half a mile of a bus stop, from which I transferred to a subway that had stops at either end of the campus. Books I bought used whenever possible from an exchange run by a service fraternity sponsored by the Boy Scouts. (PDFs would cost a fortune to print out, btw, and I am one of many who needs to learn by writing summaries in the margins.)

Had I -- in the same socioeconomic status as I was in 1961, hoped to attend college today, I would not have been able to garner the same sort of academic scholarship I got then, nor would I have been able to afford Temple U. today, though it is far more affordable than many good-quality schools, and though it has programs in place to ensure students can make it through in 4 years, incurring less debt. Currently my tuition would be $14K/year.

David said...

There are probably multiple causes to this very broad phenomenon. I would suggest the following two contributory factors:

1) The increasing acceptability of admitting problems like anxiety, together with the spread of a socially-acceptable vocabulary for talking about them. My hunch is that the problems were always there, and that the discovery of the vocabulary is a kind of liberation for many ("So that's what I was feeling! And I can talk about it in a way that doesn't just sound like a disapproving tough guy!").

2) The hyper-development of the assessment bureaucracy aspect of our education system and our society generally. More performance assessments mean more anxiety for many (I suspect most) people, and (again I suspect) play a powerful role in dampening positive rewards like ambition, interest, satisfaction in completing a job, etc.

David said...

I would add that my own thinking is that fear is simply a powerful, deeply rooted, elemental force in human makeup. Like hunger or lust or anger, it can find objects and can in given instances be excited by outside stimuli, but it exists all on its own. Like the other impulses mentioned, fear is more powerful for some folks than it is for others, and some people don't have it--though I for one would be cautious in accepting any particular person's self-assessment that "I'm not afraid of anything." For most people (again, in my thinking), fear can be accommodated or denied or repressed, but not eliminated or "cured."

John said...

I've been wondering for years if anxiety is really increasing, or if it is mainly better awareness of an old problem. One thing that weighs on my mind is my knowing at least three young people crippled by anxiety, so much that they could not go to college and have had great difficulty holding a job. I never knew such people before. But, it occurs to me, I know these anxious people because I know their parents; if there were such people around me in my own age group I would presumably not have met them because they were at home, avoiding the world.

I also know that mental health issues in general have become a much bigger deal in higher education, and you routinely read that anxiety and depression have become the main reasons students drop out of college and so on. The first time I taught as an adjunct my orientation was about half about sexual harassment, with instructors eyeing me suspiciously as they explained the blanket ban on all romantic or sexual involvement students. The last two times sexual harassment has hardly been mentioned because more than half the day was taken up with mental health issues -- how to recognize troubled students, where to point them for help, etc.

Of course anxiety is a human universal, or nearly so, but that doesn't mean it can't vary a good deal from one society to another.

Or does it? How much do personality norms vary between cultures? This, I would say, is one of the biggest questions in both the humanities and social sciences.

David said...

What I meant about anxiety being a human universal is that one should not look too much for its causes to particular phenomena at a particular time, such as politicians creating an atmosphere of fear or college tuitions rising or parents being too tough or too overprotective or life being too hard or too easy, as though people would be brave if those stimuli were somehow removed, and as though a certain amount of fearfulness were not part of the normal baseline of human existence.

On the other hand, and in complete contradiction to myself, I would say that the assessment bureaucracy system--with its assessments that are made on bases that seem murky to many students, on matters that seems irrelevant and motiveless to many of them except for the fact that they're being assessed on those matters, and very little prospect that they would ever be free of such assessments, may make anxiety a more continual feature of existence.

It seems to me that at least expectations and judgments of human personality vary across cultures, and in that form of social pressure, may well structure apparent personality in various ways. The requirement to repress one's nature may also lead to its expression in other forms, particularly anger--in other words, social pressure may alter not only apparent personality, but the personality itself, though often not in the ways intended.