Stepping onto the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, there is a nervous buzz in the air.
Final exams are coming up and students are lined up in the bookstore to buy their test booklets, manically texting. The library is so full that some students sit on the floor, gathering in circles around laptops in a grim parody of nights around a bonfire. The stress is palpable; more than once, a student glances up from a computer with a hopeless expression.
Since 2008, the number of students dealing with anxiety or higher than average stress levels has skyrocketed, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems on college campuses. Forty million U.S. adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 75 percent of them experience their first episode of anxiety by age 22. Combining this with the pressure of final exams, internships or full-time jobs, and the growing debt, it is no wonder that fewer students are leaving college mentally healthy, according to the ADAA.
Yara Zayas, a student at the University of South Florida, has experienced the type of pressure and stress that causes many of her peers to worsening anxiety and higher levels of depression.
“Being 22 and attending college in this new age gives off a ‘fish out of water’ feeling – I’m really just confused most of the time and I’m not sure what is expected of me,” says Zayas. “It’s like everything I once knew just vanished because it’s not what I need to know now, if that makes sense. It’s hard. There shouldn’t be a sense of paranoia with decision making but unfortunately it just doesn’t work that way.”
Why Mental Health Landscape is Changing
Leila Durr, PhD, Licensed Psychologist at the USF Counseling Center, sees students every day who are dealing with some level of stress or anxiety issues.
“I have seen a significant increase in a number of things, one being anxiety across the board,” says Durr. “It used to be that the concerns were pretty mixed with relationship problems, stress, anxiety. But the anxiety piece has just really gone up before. There have been other mental health concerns that have become more chronic, but anxiety has definitely gone up.”
Currently, 20 percent of college students say they feel stressed “most of the time.” Ten percent of college students have had thoughts of suicide, 34 percent of college students report feeling depressed at least at one point within the last 90 days, 13 percent of college students have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or other mental health condition, and 80 percent of college students say they sometimes or often feel stressed, according to the ADAA. About half of surveyed college students felt overwhelmed with anxiety at least once within the last 12 months.
“There was a national study from 2011 that said that more than 60 percent of students that withdrew from college did so because of anxiety,” says Dr. Wendy Rice, Psy.D, Licensed Psychologist and Founder of Rice Psychology Group.
The reasons for the rising anxiety range from test taking to increasing academic demands. Millennials have also seen a sharp spike in student loans, as well as decreasing job opportunities after graduation resulting in students taking on full-time jobs, internships, and additional responsibilities. For many students, college is the first time having to deal with these steep demands and they are unsure of how to manage the stress.
“We’re working with what we were given,” says Zayas. “Our parents and their parents had it much easier. School was cheaper and life wasn’t as fast paced as it is today. With today’s society, if you’re not racing with everyone else you’re going to be left behind, and no one is going to look back to help you.”
There are also issues with students feeling stuck in the “happiness trap,” says Durr. The happiness trap is the constant need to only feel happy, which leads students to ignore other feelings and leads to higher levels of fear and anxiety.
“The fear of the unknown is really uncomfortable for a lot of people, and a lot of students don’t know how to tolerate or manage that,” says Durr. “When we add that into the external factors like the economy and the pressure of jobs, it can become very large.”
Preparing for Challenges
While it is easy to write off a generation as lazy or neurotic, one of the most important things to remember as a parent is that preparing them for challenges is key.
“Sometimes parents can be over-involved… can pave the way too much for their kids, which leaves them unprepared,” says Durr. “If we protect kids too much from any kinds of pain, disappointment, or setbacks, when they do experience one it is so much more devastating.”
Another issue that Durr sees often which leads to worsening anxiety, is lack of self-care.
“Especially when they[students] get to college, we know self-care goes down,” says Durr. “The core pillars of self-care include good sleep habits, healthy eating, exercise and social connections. Those are all really important, like the four legs of a table, for someone to be physically and mentally healthy.”
Social connections and sleep are the most important pieces of self-care that can prevent anxiety issues.
“With technology that connects us, like Facebook and social media, we are sort of connected more, but students are connected less because they do less actual talking to people, which takes a toll,” says Durr. “And with sleep, it seems to be this norm to not get enough sleep now. But if you don’t get enough sleep, everything will put you on edge even more.”
Students may be more likely to sacrifice self-care because of the fear of missing out, or FOMO. “Knowing that if they are really tired and learning how to handle the fear of missing out and how to make decisions in the best interest of their health is one of the best ways to deal with stress,” says Rice.
Before your child leaves for college, making sure that they are prepared can be key.
Durr and Rice agree that preparing for tests can be another way to thwart anxiety attacks during exam time. Encouraging your child to do quizzes with friends can make a huge difference when it comes to keeping them mentally healthy.
“There is a lot going on at the end of high school, but helping kids learn how to manage their schedule, how to do their laundry and how to gradually assume adult responsibility for their lives is laying the groundwork for less anxiety,” says Rice. “Making sure they know how to study and how to reach out to people so that they aren’t studying alone can help them. It isn’t so much about preparing them for college but to just prepare them for life.”
When and Where to Get Help
When your child is away at college, it may be difficult to know if they are having issues with anxiety. However, roommates, friends and even professors should be on the look-out for symptoms of a larger issue.
“If students are not showing up for class, are isolating themselves from peers, if a high performing student stops doing well, if they are losing weight, if they look distraught or panic stricken, these are all signs that something is wrong,” says Rice. “If a student starts asking a lot of questions or stops asking questions, we would be concerned.”
Any significant change in behavior can also be a red flag. Anxiety can look like irritability or anger, Durr advises. Anxiety and high stress levels can also take a physical toll. If the student seems to be undergoing physical changes quickly, it may be cause for concern.
“Anxiety can change your cortisol level which can wreak havoc on your system,” says Rice. “It can produce cortisol which can change your weight and make you lose sleep. It shows up in how we think, our emotions, and physically as well. Like feeling on edge, restless, trouble concentrating, etc. It is exhausting being on a constant state of alert.”
Durr says that USF students can find help through the Wellness Center, which offers massages, education, healthy eating and self-care. “They can also come into the counseling center to talk to our counselors so that we can help them learn to manage the day-to-day,” she says.
For many students, there is a stigma about seeking mental health. Students may be afraid to tell their parents if they are struggling, so it is important to be prepared to talk to your teen openly about caring for their mental health. When you are choosing a college with your teen, take the time to find out what the mental health resources on campus are, so that if your teen does need extra support you can help them locate the resources unique to their school.
“The ADAA has facts about what is anxiety and learning about what it is can be helpful,” says Rice. “But if a teen or college student is showing signs of anxiety they should absolutely get help from either a private psychologist or an on-campus counseling center,” says Rice.
“If we prepare our children how to take a breath and the importance of self-care, it will change the way they approach stressful situations like college,” says Durr.