According to a recent survey, this year’s freshman class rated themselves as having the lowest emotional health in the past 25 years.
The survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms 2010,” was conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute
Experts hypothesize that depression, high levels of stress, and particularly, the worries that come with a recession are major contributing factors.
The survey included the answers of over 200,000 incoming freshmen at four-year universities and relied entirely on each student’s self-evaluation.
Although it is difficult to tell definitively whether this class truly has higher stress levels than previous years, counselors and professors of many schools say that they have noticed this trend as well.
“The research being conducted on college and stress does tend to indicate that students are entering college with greater levels of stress. That has also matched my professional experience in the past six to eight years,” said Tevya Zukor, director of Counseling and Psychological Services here at the University of Mary Washington.
Zukor explained that there are many factors that can contribute to greater stress levels, including the increasing number of first-generation college students and people with a history of mental illness or psychological difficulties entering college.
Since their parents did not have the college experience, first-generation college students might not be able to benefit from the same kind of guidance and advice that students whose parents did attend college can receive, making the adjustment to college more difficult, according to Zukor.
Also, with improvements in medicine, people with mental and psychological difficulties are now attending college when they might not have been able to in the past, Zukor said. For them, the usually difficult transition is even more stressful.
Professor Steve Greenlaw of the economics department, who taught a freshman seminar last semester, has also noticed an increase in stress levels this year.
He said that, while in past years his seminars have usually been well attended, last semester there were several students who “sort of vanished for a while.” When confronted about their frequent absences, the students said that they were dealing with “personal issues.”
Other students have faced difficulties because of the bad economy.
“I have students whose parents have been laid off because of the recession,” Greenlaw said. “They have serious problems going to school and staying in school, [but] most of them don’t let it show. They’ll say ‘there are issues, I can’t buy the book.”
Professor Antonio Barrenechea said that grades were down in his freshman seminar last semester, but was unsure whether this was due to high stress.
This statistic, however, does not necessarily represent all UMW students. Three freshmen interviewed who had older siblings graduate from college said that their siblings were probably more stressed when they were in college than the freshmen are now.
“I try not to worry about anything,” freshman Joe Clayton said.
Of eight freshmen interviewed, only three said that the economy and the possibility of difficulties finding a job after graduation were concerning to them.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” freshman Stephen Campbell said. “The hard part is finding a job you love that pays well.”
Most of the freshmen named causes of stress that are by no means unique to their class.
For Campbell, learning to balance social life and responsibility is a difficult part of adjusting to the independence of college life.
Freshman Shannon O’Grady named “the transition to living on your own” and “schoolwork” as the main sources of her stress.
Gautam Mehra, also a freshman, said that deciding what to major in and figuring out what he wants to do in life are major points of stress for him.
“Adjusting to a new environment is always difficult,” Zukor said.
“Factoring in that transition to college often entails greatly increased academic demands, adjusting to independence away from family and established support networks, and interacting with a wider range of people and backgrounds than one was ever exposed to in high school. Stress is going to be a natural consequence.”
“Going to college is stressful because it’s so different. That’s not new,” said Greenlaw.
According to Greenlaw, some students are probably worried about whether they will be able to get a job after graduation in the bad economy, but in his opinion, “four years from now the economy is going to be fine, frankly.”
“In the past few years, I have certainly seen increased anxiety related to the economy,” Zukor said, “however, I don’t think the concerns have been limited to just the freshmen. Students of all years have increasingly discussed anxieties about their families’ financial situations and their employment opportunities upon graduation.”
The freshman classes of other local universities, specifically the University of Virginia, Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and James Madison University, have not shown signs that they have higher stress levels than in other years either, according to the respective universities psychological services.
According to Celeste Thomas, the Outreach and Consultation Specialist at James Madison University, mental health issues have been getting worse over the past few years.
The directors of counseling services and counselors interviewed at UVA, Longwood University and VCU all reported similar trends that the higher levels of stress in past years greatly affect all classes, not only the freshmen, but also students from the past several years.
When asked, many UMW students attributed their main cause of stress to academics. This trend is in keeping with a 2005 wellness survey conducted at UMW, in which the category “homework, projects and general research” was cited by over half of the 481 participating students as their biggest stressor.
“I have high standards school work-wise and it’s hard to keep up with a heavy workload if you want to do everything and don’t want to fall behind,” Elliott said.
While students do seem to agree that they are most stressed by academics, they all have differing ways of handling their stress and blowing off steam.
“I bake and go to the gym,” said Palenik.
Bettencourt avoids stress by “just not putting things off,” and taking time to talk with friends when things get too stressful.
“When we get stressed intentionally cut out all of those things we know help us cope with stress,” Zukor said. “[But in making time for hobbies] we find that our ability to cope and handle high levels of stress improves significantly.”
According to Zukor about “10 to 20 students with high stress levels” go to CAPS each week. Their causes of stress include anything and everything, but are mainly attributed to worries about academics and the job market.
For students who are seeking a safe, healthy way to de-stress, CAPS provides online pamphlets full of helpful suggestions. They also provide free and confidential counseling sessions. CAPS is located in Lee Hall 106.