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Why Are So Many College Students Depressed?

The New York Timestells a sad tale of suicide and depression at The University of Pennsylvania—a growing trend amongst universities throughout the nation:

Ms. Holleran was the third of six Penn students to commit suicide in a 13-month stretch, and the school is far from the only one to experience a so-called suicide cluster. This school year, Tulane lost four students and Appalachian State at least three — the disappearance in September of a freshman, Anna M. Smith, led to an 11-day search before she was found in the North Carolina woods, hanging from a tree. Cornell faced six suicides in the 2009-10 academic year. In 2003-4, five New York University students leapt to their deaths.

Nationally, the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily since 2007: from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 to 11.1, in 2013 (the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). But a survey of college counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent in just two years. Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

Soon after Ms. Holleran’s death, Penn formed a task force to examine mental health on campus. Its final report … recognized a potentially life-threatening aspect of campus culture: Penn Face. An apothegm long used by students to describe the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed, Penn Face is so widely employed that it has showed up in skits performed during freshman orientation.

While the appellation is unique to Penn, the behavior is not. In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.

… Citing a “perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, cocurricular and social endeavor,” the task force report described how students feel enormous pressure that “can manifest as demoralization, alienation or conditions like anxiety or depression.”

What is it about college that encourages this incessant pressure to achieve, and these resulting moments of crisis?

It seems our performance-based education culture must play a sizable role in this: quantified measures of skill turn learning into a competition. As Charles Tsai just wrote for Medium,

Books and books are being written about how schools operate like factories and treat students as clones of one another, training them to be compliant workers rather than people who think for themselves. Even the elite schools, the ones that actually produce the future business executives and presidents, do this. They make students jump through arbitrary hoops and use the hoops to rank and sort them.

This encourages students to measure themselves against other high-performing students, and fosters culture of anxiety in which we’re all striving for some impossible-to-attain first place prize.

But even the style of learning and character developed is affected by this performance emphasis, which values quantitative skills over qualitative goods: lauding athletic prowess, the 4.0 GPA, the stunning internship portfolio—but passing over more subjective, immaterial skills such as critical thinking, mental development, and thoughtful class participation. It does not recognize a healthy social life, a deepening interest in the culinary arts, or the business aplomb of a budding entrepreneur.

What is taught can even become secondary to the grades one receives, and the resulting benefits realized by 1) the student in his or her career pursuits, and 2) the school in financial supports and academic acclaim.

It’s also important to consider the crisis of choice that many students face when they enter college. They’re often apart from any familial or communal support system, entrusted with total authority and autonomy, and receive little to no system of rules or guidelines to navigate looming dilemmas—saving the popular yet confusing “follow your heart.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that students put into this situation often suffer a crisis of identity, or at least one of direction, as they embark upon this new world. What their parents or community prized may no longer be enough: what they thought great may of a sudden appear mediocre. Some may abandon the rules of their past for a new, nearly anarchical, exploration of self and its wants. Others may throw themselves into the rigid rules of the new performance-based system they are faced with. But both paths are often damaging.

The Times article is right to point out the role often played by demanding parents, as Julie Lythcott-Haims pointed out in Slate a couple weeks ago:

In 2013 the news was filled with worrisome statistics about the mental health crisis on college campuses, particularly the number of students medicated for depression. Charlie Gofen, the retired chairman of the board at the Latin School of Chicago, a private school serving about 1,100 students, emailed the statistics off to a colleague at another school and asked, “Do you think parents at your school would rather their kid be depressed at Yale or happy at University of Arizona?” The colleague quickly replied, “My guess is 75 percent of the parents would rather see their kids depressed at Yale. They figure that the kid can straighten the emotional stuff out in his/her 20’s, but no one can go back and get the Yale undergrad degree.”

We should be seriously concerned by a culture in which academic accolades and prestige outweigh our concerns for inner emotional wellbeing.

The Times article also looks at our tendency to strive toward perfection, and all the problems that stem from such behavior. While this is true, the problem with an anti-perfectionism backlash is that it can easily lead students to the aforementioned anarchical path, in which they run helter-skelter from goal to goal, hobby to hobby, striving for fulfillment. We want to find that middle ground where we can encourage students to be themselves, without throwing all rule books or life goals out the window.

Giving students a better college experience seems to involve the refocusing of education on lasting, permanent goods—beyond one’s GPA and extracurricular performance. It should also involve the encouragement and establishment of strong community supports—on and off campus—to invest in a student as he or she grows. It is easy to become distracted by academic accolades. But what should students walk away with when they leave college? Hopefully, they should have a toolbox of critical thinking and experiential skills to help them navigate the world, along with a community of friends and mentors to assist them on their paths. Though these things can’t be quantitatively measured, they will help students overcome their perfectionism and depression, and hopefully help them emerge into the light of confidence and community.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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