The Mental Health Crisis That Isn’t

The “mental health crisis” that isn’t

May 27, 2007

Colleges’ own statistics and research don’t support fears of a psychological emergency on our college campuses.

In recently raising a fee that pays for student services, University of California officials cited “the serious and urgent need for enhanced mental health services” on the system’s 10 campuses. Students today suffer “so much stress,” Elizabeth Downing, head of the UC Santa Barbara health center, told The Times last week, and the UC Student Mental Health Committee reported that “students are presenting mental health issues with greater frequency and complexity.” About 43% of the revenue generated by the higher fee will go to treating such problems.

These concerns are not confined to California. College counselors across the nation face “an entirely new scale of difficulty” as “the number of students with depression has doubled, the number of suicidal students has tripled and sexual assaults have gone up fourfold,” the American Federation of Teachers reported in its monthly On Campus magazine.

Jean Twenge, San Diego State psychologist and author of the much-quoted “Generation Me,” goes further: Today’s students are more miserable, lonely, narcissistic, self-centered and materialistic largely because school curriculums artificially inject young people with unmerited “self-esteem” at the expense of demanding real achievement.

But our most reliable long-term surveys and public health measures show that students today are no more plagued with mental problems that their predecessors and that claims of a “campus mental health crisis” may be overblown.

Since 1966, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has annually surveyed hundreds of thousands of first-year college students, publishing its findings in the American Freshman. According to the institute’s surveys, the percentage of college freshmen who described themselves as “frequently depressed” has fallen substantially over the last two decades, from a peak of 11% in 1988 to lows of 7% in 2005 and 2006. The percentages of students who felt overwhelmed by academic obligations rose through the late 1990s but have since declined. Campus counseling center statistics are inconsistent and limited, but those available show that the percentages of students using them to be fairly stable.

More generally, public health and law enforcement statistics reveal that rates of suicide have fallen by 50%, and rates of other self-destructive deaths (drugs, poisons and hangings, accidental deaths from guns and deaths of undetermined intent) by more than 60% among California teenagers and young adults over the last 35 years. Students seem particularly safe from lethal dangers. The 2003 Big Ten study of 12 Midwestern campuses found annual suicide rates — 7.5 per 100,000 students age 18 to 24 — were half the national rate for that age group.

The findings of my study of the eight UC campuses — Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and San Diego — and their surrounding communities were similar. Students 18 to 24 years old rarely died violently, and the rates of such deaths were declining dramatically.

Today, 18- to 24-year-olds make up about 40% of the adult populations surrounding the eight UCs but account for just 12% of suicides, 15% of violent deaths, 21% of gun deaths, 27% of traffic deaths and 5% of drug overdose deaths. My research found that older students and college personnel were much more at risk than undergraduates.

Monitoring the Future, a survey of 12,000 high school seniors annually conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, contradicts Twenge’s claim that students suffer more pathologies because of undeserved self-esteem. According to the surveys, today’s high school seniors actually have lower self-images than those of 30 years ago. For instance, in 1976, 82% of the students said, “I take a positive attitude toward myself,” and 86% agreed that “I am a person of worth.” In 2005, the percentages were 73% and 77%, respectively.

However, considerably higher percentages of these students than their predecessors say they are “very happy,” are having fun, enjoy the fast pace of modern life, view the future optimistically and feel it’s important to make a contribution to society. Many fewer report feeling lonely, left out and “no good at all” compared to their counterparts of the 1970s.

Nor do Monitoring the Future surveys support Twenge’s contention that today’s youth are stressed by rising materialism. Compared to their counterparts of 20 to 30 years ago, current high school seniors are substantially less likely to value owning the latest fashions or to feel their status is enhanced by driving a nice car or coming from the right family. And while the percentages of them saying they wanted to have “lots of money” rose from 1976 (46%) to 1985 (61%), they have not significantly risen since then.

Students today also appear less psychiatrically medicated, according to the Monitoring surveys. About 7% of high school seniors report taking doctor-prescribed sedatives, tranquilizers or amphetamines versus 15% in the 1970s.

Likewise, illicit pharmaceutical drug use is only half as common today as back then. Use of prescription narcotics like codeine or Vicodin has remained flat over time.

How then to explain the increasing impression that younger college students are more mentally disturbed, suicidal, dangerous and endangered?

There is no question that burgeoning college enrollment has pushed the caseloads of campus mental health personnel and psychologists beyond professional guidelines. For instance, UC enrollments have increased by 50,000 in the last decade as funding for many student health services has been cut. As a result, UC has about one psychologist for every 2,300 students, which is far below the guideline of the International Assn. of Counseling Services of one psychologist for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.

But rather than peg their case for more mental health funding to these legitimate concerns, campus officials have played the “troubled youth” fear card. For a century, mental health practitioners have regularly ascribed more depression, anxiety, violence and other mental troubles to young people.

In 1913, psychologist Lewis Terman proclaimed that skyrocketing teenage stress was driving an “epidemic of child suicide.” In 1935, the American Council on Education’s American Youth Commission reported that 75% of young men suffered physical debilitation induced by mental anxiety, while a national study a year later found youth in a “melancholic … state rapidly approaching a psychosis.” In the 1980s, the National Assn. of Private Psychiatric Hospitals and other lobbies trumpeted an “epidemic of teen suicide” that later congressional testimony and an American Psychological Assn. investigation concluded was an attempt to fill beds in overbuilt psychiatric hospitals.

Judging by the best evidence we have, today’s high school and college students are no more troubled — indeed are probably less so — than those of 15, 25, or 35 years ago. That higher tuitions raise student anxiety — a new UC-funded poll found 16- to 22-year-olds citing “school and money as their top sources of personal stress” — is just one more compelling reason to base mental health funding on professional criteria rather than “suicidal student” scare campaigns.

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