Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Campus Counseling Visits on the Rise.. Why?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "The number of college students with severe psychological problems continues to increase, while anxiety, depression, and relationship issues most commonly send students to seek help at their campus counseling centers, according to a report released last month."

Here's the article link; you probably need a Chronicle subscription to read it:

First, I have to say that it's very sad to read this today, on the anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, which took place six years ago. Have we made any progress toward prevention of such events? It doesn't seem to me that we have. There are so many distressed young people, and our discussions about these issues are still so superficial.

Interestingly, the study cited in the Chronicle reports an inverse correlation between the number of counseling visits per student, and school size:

"Centers at small, private colleges typically draw a greater percentage of students than do those at large, public institutions. At private four-year colleges with enrollments between 1,500 and 2,500, roughly 18 percent of students visited the counseling center, the report says. At public universities of more than 30,000, only 7 percent of students did."

On this topic, I suspect that financial issues are one of the main drivers behind the anxiety that students feel. If that's the case, then there may be a correlation between counseling visits and sticker price. Also, based on recent discussions with several sets of parents, I'd say too many parents make an incorrect assumption that a small school is necessarily more socially welcoming and supportive than a larger one. Usually, those making this assumption cite the student-teacher ratio, which is very limited metric, in my opinion. Parents often assume that smaller is better, but it's really not that simple. I have worked with a number of students who really loved and took great advantage of the more diverse student population that they found in a large public university. They like the social options and, perhaps to some extent, the anonymity. 

One young fellow I've worked with on career goals for a few years told me that a small college he visited felt too much like high school... cliquey and full of the same kinds of kids. This is consistent with my own experience. I don't know about you but for me, high school was a rather awful social experience, where it was very hard to find kids with whom I could identify. My transition into a fairly large public college brought tremendous relief!

Overall, it seems to me that many of our schools have become places of great stress, with too many students believing that every test is make-or-break... and too many faculty teaching to the tests, rather than really connecting with the students. Grade inflation has made it so hard to distinguish oneself that the students are scratching and clawing over every plus or minus. And we now have a quarter or more of our students resorting to amphetamine-based prescription medications to assist with cramming... 

...not to mention the anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants. It seems that college has become a fabulously profitable pharmaceutical enterprise. Is anyone really surprised? Is today's college environment where students want to come and feel inspired to take those first, tentative steps toward finding themselves?

Far too many discussions I have with students now revolve around finances and related anxieties, e.g. whether there will be a job for them, whether they can cram it all into three years, etc. In addition to that direct financial stress, several other factors seem to elevate the anxiety in our colleges. The enrollment surge is something many of our colleges were ill-equipped to handle, and that surge led to larger and less personal classes and now perhaps even acceptance of courses that students won't even attend in person, because that's how the system thinks it can pare instructional costs. And this is "college"... collegium... a social environment.

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