College Freshmen Report Record-Low Levels of Emotional Health

January 27, 2011

This year's freshmen reported record-low levels of emotional health, according to the latest results of the University of California at Los Angeles's national survey of first-year undergraduates. At the same time, more students gave themselves high marks for ambition to achieve.

College counselors say the two are clearly related, as students put more pressure on themselves to excel.

The percentage of students reporting good or above-average emotional health dropped from 55.3 percent in 2009 to 51.9 percent in 2010, according to "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2010" survey. That marks the lowest point since 1985, when the survey first asked the question.

Denise Hayes, the president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, says the data confirm national trends.

"The intensity of the issues that students come in with is increasing," says Ms. Hayes, who is also the director of Student Health and Counseling Services at the Claremont University Consortium.

Depression, formerly at the forefront of students' emotional-health concerns, has taken a back seat to anxiety, Ms. Hayes says. Of the freshmen surveyed, 75.8 percent rated their drive to achieve as above average or in the highest 10 percent, and 29.1 percent said they felt overwhelmed in high school.

Ms. Hayes says that increasing ambition plays a central role in students' declining levels of emotional health. For some students, she says, that drive stems from worries over money.

"College tuition is higher, so they feel the pressure to give their parents their money's worth in terms of their academic performance," she says. "There's also a notion, and I think it's probably true, that the better their grades are, the better chance they have at finding a job."

Women were less likely than men to report good emotional health—45.9 percent of women, compared with 59.1 percent of men. Sharon Mitchell, the director of counseling services at the University at Buffalo, says the gender difference likely has to do with how girls and boys are socialized from a young age.

"We may be hearing more about how women are feeling because it's acceptable for us to voice how we feel, whereas boys are taught that you should have everything together, you shouldn't let things affect you," says Ms. Mitchell, who is also a member of the counseling association's board.

The survey also found that students who rate themselves low for emotional health are not much more likely to seek counseling than their peers—11.2 percent of those students reporting low levels of emotional health believed they would need counseling in college, compared with 8.3 percent of students reporting higher levels of emotional health.

Although not every student seeks counseling, many centers are stretching their resources to accommodate those who do. Ms. Hayes hears from colleagues that some centers are spread too thin, with long waiting lists for students and staff positions that remain unfilled month after month. The recommended counseling staff-to-student ratio is one to every 1,000 to 1,500; however, most schools have a ratio closer to one to 1,600, according to the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors.

Ms. Mitchell says preventive measures are one way to reach students who otherwise wouldn't seek counseling.

"It's really important to do outreach to students that doesn't necessarily involve counseling but focuses on the promotion of good mental health," she says.

The University at Buffalo introduces students to mental-health concepts through in-class assignments. Students in a visual-studies class, for example, created public-service announcements on topics such as eating disorders and responsible drinking.

Counseling services at the University of Connecticut has also connected with faculty and staff to provide preventive support to students. Nearly 3,000 members of the campus community have received QPR training—a three-step suicide prevention method that stands for "Question, Persuade, and Refer"—as part of the university's suicide-prevention effort.

"The far majority of students who will kill themselves on a college campus have never spoken to a mental-health professional," says Barry Schreier, director of counseling and mental-health services at the University of Connecticut and a counseling association board member. Staff and faculty members are crucial in suicide prevention because they are "first-line responders" to students, Mr. Schreier says.

For many students, however, too much reliance on others may be the problem. Ms. Hayes wonders whether students today lack the resiliency of students 20 years ago.

"The ways students learned to fend for themselves developmentally—by building up problem-solving skills and coping skills—have been undermined with the attention to supporting them and the immediate contact with parents at all times," she says. "There's a question of whether that's contributing."