The causes of student anxiety may seem obvious, with pandemic disruptions and social-media pressures heading the list, and this approach frames much current commentary. But that interpretation risks oversimplifying a problem that long predates Covid and Instagram. Student-services personnel were using crisis terminology
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The causes of student anxiety may seem obvious, with pandemic disruptions and social-media pressures heading the list, and this approach frames much current commentary. But that interpretation risks oversimplifying a problem that long predates Covid and Instagram. Student-services personnel were using crisis terminology 20 years ago, which is also when palliatives like importing puppy dogs at exam time began to be introduced. The recent and clearly significant developments are exacerbators, not initiators.
The rise of student anxiety largely tracks the rise of anxiety in the U.S. population as a whole, a shift visible in that evolving bible of American psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The manual’s first edition, in 1952, paid limited attention to anxiety, which it characterized primarily as a symptom of “psychoneurotic disorders.” The DSM-III, in 1980, identified “anxiety disorders” as a discrete category, but estimated that only 2 percent to 4 percent of the population would, over the course of a lifetime, ever meet the diagnostic criteria. By the early 21st century, however, surveys put lifetime prevalence at nearly 30 percent, making anxiety disorders the most prevalent class of psychological problem. Google Ngrams show steadily increasing general references to anxiety from the 1940s onward, from previously low levels. And it was in the 1950s, closely linked to the emergence of new drugs like Miltown (1955), that news coverage and adult concern began to soar.
This was the context in which attention to anxiety among students began to develop, without initially provoking deep concern. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the standard expert evaluation suggested a tripartite division: A minority of students were just fine; 10 percent or so had serious mental illness; and the majority suffered from less serious problems. Anxiety was not yet routinely noted, though among common “problems” were complaints like nervousness or apathy that might later escalate, or be escalated, into anxiety.
Yet darker shadows soon emerged. Psychological research in these decades evinced a fascination with examination anxiety, generating dozens of studies and spawning a program of anxiety testing for grade-schoolers and college students alike. The resulting data suggested that anxiety was hampering academic work for large numbers of students, and that the problem was getting worse over time. Thus student anxiety surged — 23 percent for men and 27 percent for women — between 1952 and 1967. Between 1968 and 1993, student anxiety rose again, 15 percent for men and 22 percent for women. By the early 1990s, experts were claiming that the average American child or college student was noticeably more anxious than their 1950s counterparts who had been under psychiatric care.
Small wonder, then, that when accelerants like Covid arrived, the American student population seemed convulsed by widespread anxiety.
One factor is the role of experts and services. For the last 50 years, mental-health authorities have periodically noted the difficulty of distinguishing between a growing problem and the greater willingness of students to seek help. Increased interest in anxiety on the part of campus professionals led to higher rates of identification and gave some students new ways to label and evaluate their discomfort. In the 1970s, for example, the terms “math anxiety” and “writing anxiety” were introduced and spread rapidly, lending greater seriousness to nervous reactions that were certainly not brand new. The sheer frequency of anxiety testing and the proliferation of groups studying phenomena such as examination anxiety, plus growing eagerness on the part of college counselors to identify students needing professional help, all contributed to a setting more hospitable to admitting — and even expecting — anxiety. The growth of on-campus counseling services pushed in the same direction, along with many measurable benefits. In the 1950s only about 10 percent of colleges had any student-facing psychological services; today, nearly all do.
A second factor is large-scale social and political change. This was a favored explanation in late 20th-century psychiatric literature, which disputed the idea that anxiety was “without cause” and argued instead that it was a response to, as one 1968 paper put it, the “overabundance of tensions, fears, worries and anxiety that confront mankind today.” Studies in the 1960s and 70s posited a wide range of drivers of anxiety in young adults, ranging from the Cold War to the increase in women working outside the home to the emergence of AIDS. Popular causation candidates were the nuclear threat and rising crime rates — and the extent to which these threats seemed to abate in the final decades of the century was taken to explain the slightly reduced rate of anxiety increase. Yet for a population attuned to anxiety, replacements would soon emerge.
The third important factor prompting unprecedented levels of anxiety was the dramatic transformation of American higher education from the 1950s onward. These years saw a huge expansion in the numbers and percentages of college entrants, and created a surge of what are now called “first generation” students, with about 40 percent of all college entrants in that category by the early 1970s. The number of women on campus also soared, from under a third of all college students in 1950 to over half by 1980. As both first-generation students and women report more anxiety than the general student population, these shifts almost certainly contributed to the initial surge of anxiety levels on campus.
College also became a much more competitive affair in the latter decades of the 20th century. Institutions created formal admissions offices and began their applications rivalry, soon spurred by the advent of the U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings in 1983. In the 1960s, most would-be college students had applied to just one institution, but by 2006, 82 percent were trying their luck with two or more. Testing anxiety increased as SAT requirements spread. In 1955, only 23 percent of college entrants took the SAT; by 1995, 75 percent were doing so. Students also began taking practice tests, sometimes as early as middle school. The sense that getting into a “good” college was difficult, and at the same time a crucial judgment of personal worth, spread widely. Anxiety kept pace.
What students expected from college changed at least as dramatically over the same time span. Surveys administered from the 1960s onward demonstrated that first-year students’ enthusiasm and sense of purpose waned as the decades passed. These surveys asked students to pick, from a list of 19 options, which goals struck them as “essential or very important.” In 1968, the most popular choice was “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” selected by 85 percent of first-year students. Other widespread goals included “helping others who are in difficulty” and “keeping up to date with political affairs.” By 2000, the most popular choice was “being very well off financially,” selected by 74 percent of students. Expectations of being satisfied with college dropped off, while reports of classroom boredom expanded. Personal ambition also soared: A growing percentage of entrants expected to get top grades, with 20 percent anticipating that they would graduate with honors (up from 4 percent in the late 1960s), while the time devoted to studying was declining as students moved from high school to college. Here was a vivid set of recalibrations that could alter the college experience for many students and generate growing disappointment and anxiety.
Acknowledging the antecedents of the current student mental-health landscape does not diminish the seriousness of the current problem. If anything, it adds a further note of pessimism: Experts have been trying to confront student anxiety for over half a century without reversing the tide. Yet too often, journalists and even counselors assume that high levels of student anxiety are the product of recent tumult alone. Historical perspective does not in itself offer clear remedy. But it enables a realistic discussion of how remedy might be sought.