The public image of American college culture has long been one of hedonistic legends; from movies like “Animal House” and “Pitch Perfect,” to websites like College Confidential, the media we consume is stuffed with images about how the college experience should look for young students making one of their final steps toward independence. But in recent years, as anxieties about selective college admissions reach a fever pitch and students become more vocal about their struggles adjusting to college life, society is beginning to wise up to the serious challenges college students are facing.
The transition from high school to college marks the convergence of countless social pressures and changes: forming a community of friends from scratch, living without the help or reassurance of family members, handling the expectations paired with academic autonomy and navigating choices with consequences that could resonate for years after graduation. It follows that students would experience hiccups in their mental health during this period of acclimation. But for many students, the battle against anxiety and depression doesn’t just fade away after the first few months of adjustment to college life.
Nearly one-third of college students report, in the past 12 months, having felt so depressed that they had difficulty functioning, while almost half of students report having felt that “things were hopeless.” At a cursory glance, the numbers for the mental health of college students are bleak, but few studies continue over the span of the student’s education. A 2009 report published in the Journal of Affective Disorders addressed this gap in research, focusing on the “longitudinal course” of various mental health disorders and treatment plans throughout a two-year period. It found that over half of the students who experienced a disorder at the start of the study were still wrestling with their mental health two years later. The study also tracked the perceived need for help and the use of therapeutic services among the selected participants, and found that both were seriously lacking for the participants who exhibited a mental health problem. The report asserts that a large proportion of students are suffering with mental health problems “that are more than transient issues related to adjustments or other temporary factors,” such as the college transition.
If we accept this more nuanced, complex perspective, we’re also faced with the question of why students would still be struggling after they’ve settled into their dorm rooms, made new friends, joined clubs and finalized all the stressful financial and administrative details of their academic careers. The answer can be found in the understanding that just because the direct challenges faced upon entry to campus may be resolved, the external pressures and expectations about college life are not. The push to re-engineer their personal short- and long-term goals and perspectives within the context of a new social and intellectual framework will have an impact on the self-concepts of students who are unsure or unable to settle on those goals and perspectives.
Self-concept encompasses the understanding of oneself as an individual and as a piece of their social environment, otherwise known as the answer to the question of “who am I?” Both factors of intra- and interpersonal identity are subject to constant fluctuation for many undergraduate students. This can lead to insecure or even negative self-concepts among students. When a person’s self-concept suffers, their mental health does too. A 2016 study that surveyed college students in China found that those whose answers indicated issues with their mental health also indicated issues with their self-concept. The antidote to the epidemic of mental disorders on campus isn’t waiting for the discomfort to pass, because the insecurities that contribute to the unhappiness of many students are beyond any momentary jolt to routine. Creating a solid self-concept, or even becoming comfortable with an ambiguous one, is a task best faced with the wisdom of a qualified counselor. It is the duty of on-campus counseling systems, many of which have been criticized for their skimpy and inconsistent services, to provide students with those resources, and it is the duty of students to recognize their need for professional help. Sometimes it takes more than time to resolve a problem, but there is always a resolution.
Madelaine Hastings is a freshman double-majoring in English and economics.