Student Stress & Emotional Health: Concern on the rise

In a recent posting in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/College-Freshmen-Report/126068/), research has shown a decrease in student emotional health and an increase in students’ drive to succeed. The author points out that the two are related and many factors contribute to the correlation. It is clear that this is a concern we need to think about and see if there are ways to better improve our campus services to match the growing needs of our students.

With each generation comes a new set of problems. Millennial students are challenged by a number of different characteristics, including feeling special, sheltered, confident, pressured and achieving. Each one of these traits has its positives and negatives, but the combination of each of the challenges is taking its toll on many incoming first-year students and extending throughout their college career.

When you think about the combination of the traits special and achieving, there is this added focus that this nation’s youth is responsible for grabbing hold of their future and changing the world. Our current students are supposed to be up and coming politicians, business moguls, media personalities, environmental activists, educators and professionals. They are to take on many of the challenges that exist including a failing education system, international military programs, economic woes and a broken medical network. If those elements were not enough, they need to do this better than the current generation and fight their way going through schooling without the same financial resources that existed in year’s past (including economic stability of their parents).

The concept of being sheltered takes a different turn of pressures. Millennial students seem less prepared today for the more functional aspects of life than previous generations. When they get to college, it may be the first time they have ever lived away from home. This means it may be the first time they have ever cooked for themselves, done laundry, balanced a budget, gone shopping for needs versus wants, managed their own schedule and tried to meet new people in a new environment. Already confronted by the stresses of doing well in the academics and trying to enjoy their college experience, add these functional elements on top and it is no wonder that a number of students still rely on their parents to help manage tasks or even take over responsibilities like paying bills and selecting their classes.

Confidence would be seen as a positive going into a college environment, but what happens when the screen is lifted and students realize that they are in a sea of intelligence and talent? College may be the first time they have ever not been selected for a job, received anything less than an A or B in a class (or on a paper) or not been the most active student in their classes. Connected with issues of being high achieving and special, there is also a belief that they are going to automatically be better off than their parents. College can be a very eye-opening experience as students are both confronted by the talent and intellect around them and the real world issues that may affect their college experience directly or their prospects after graduation.

With these other traits posing their own issues, it is not surprising that students feel pressured. But is any of this really new? For the most part, many of these problems existed in the past. To issue for the current generation of students is that they feel like they are all hitting at once. While intelligence and pressure to succeed keep increasing, availability of resources to help students cope and effectiveness of preparation before entering college do not. Students are ill-prepared for the experience of college and tend to have more moments of failure or stumbling before getting it right. This may be necessary to an extent, but there are some barriers we have control over.

How do we affect change to support students better? Good habits and preparation need to take place during the high school year, but on college campuses it is the student affairs services that need to pick up the slack. Counseling and Wellness Services need to be prepared for both the quantity and severity of problems with which students bring to college. Residential Life departments need to make sure they have student staff that are ready to challenge the confidence of incoming students and help provide peer advising to help with the transition. Career Services tends to struggle with visibility and access for students, so for them it would be more about exposure around campus. There also could be more consideration for an introductory course for all entering students which helps to guide students through a number of these challenges they may face.

Higher education is not responsible for preventing these issues, but students are entering campuses with a number of challenges. It is up to use to find creative and innovative ways to help support them through these challenges in preparation for the world beyond the college grounds.

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