Getting into college was supposed to be the hard part. Then, with mom at a distance, weeks until the first research paper is due, and four long years until the résumés must go out, the good times were supposed to begin.
Think again. The latest annual survey of college freshmen nationwide revealed that those who arrived on campus in the fall of 2010 were the most stressed-out class on record. "This is the class with the lowest confidence about their emotional health in decades," says lead author John Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California—Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute.
Stress in reasonable doses can be a good thing, notes Brian Van Brunt, past president of the American College Counseling Association. He tells students that it "keeps us working and moving ahead." But when stress is prolonged or overwhelming, it has been implicated in a host of health problems, including impaired immunity and depression. A 2009 survey conducted for the Associated Press and MTV showed that 85 percent of college students were stressed; more than 40 percent said they'd felt down, depressed, or hopeless at least several days during the previous two weeks.
Students may respond by trying to drown their sorrows, which is apt to make matters worse. If freshmen are showing up "already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health, faculty, deans, and administrators should expect to see more consequences of stress, such as higher levels of poor judgment around time management, alcohol consumption, and academic motivation," says Pryor.
Those who counsel students see drug abuse and risky sexual behaviors, too. It's a vicious cycle, says Kim Phillips, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Western Kentucky University. "These unhealthy coping mechanisms most always end up leading to an increase in stress, which in turn may lead to anxiety or depression," she says.
The economy is a huge culprit. Students are showing up with still-high expectations for college, Pryor says, but feel unable to afford key parts of their wish list—study abroad, for example. They're already fearful, too, about being able to pay back their student loans. It certainly doesn't help that parental unemployment is at the highest level since UCLA's freshmen survey first asked the question in 1971. Some 53 percent of students reported that they've borrowed to help pay the bills, and 73 percent—the highest percentage since 2001—are relying on grants and scholarships.
On the one hand, the pressure is on from the outset to begin enriching that résumé. John Pfister, Dartmouth College's assistant dean of first year students, has students coming in during their first term looking for help planning triple majors. On the other hand, there's more of a sense of hopelessness, as though college is "a gamble," says Van Brunt. It can be disheartening, he says, "to see your friend making $25,000 as a manager . . . at the mall while you're basically living in poverty."
Meanwhile, the responsibilities that come with sudden independence—managing the work flow and social pressures, forming relationships with professors, negotiating with roommates—can produce enormous anxiety in students who have limited practice standing on their own two feet, psychologists say.
Those whose parents have been overly protective, leaving them without much experience solving their own problems, tend to be especially vulnerable; they're more apt to be dependent and highly anxious, and less apt to be open to new ideas than their peers, according to personality testing of college freshmen by researchers at Keene State College.
Charlene Chew-Ogi, director of residential life at the University of California—Santa Barbara, sees many of these parents, who have refused to "allow for any mistakes as the child grows up," come to campus for the first several weekends. When they can't physically be there to sort things out, they're all too available electronically.
"I remember a time when a student would be embarrassed to give mom or dad the weekend call," says Chew-Ogi. Now, rather than handle tough situations themselves, she says, students have no hesitation about calling or texting home for help "any time of the day or night."
A better way for parents to lend support at this point is to resist playing "fix-it" and help brainstorm solutions instead, offers Brian Harke, dean of students at the University of Southern California. He suggests that parents ask their children what action might make sense and what college resources are available. The students then get 24 hours to work on the problem before mom and dad check back to see how things are going.
Says Harke: "In my experience, the situation will usually work itself out, or [students realize] that they can deal with it on their own." And parents, he says, "have empowered their student to embrace their independence."
Parents who receive the virtually inevitable "I want to come home" phone call shouldn't rush to arrange a weekend at home, experts advise. Instead, reassure the student that these feelings are very common, encourage involvement on campus, and remind him or her to give it time. "The reality is most students take several weeks . . . or even several months to fully feel comfortable at their home away from home," says Van Brunt.
Kids are more likely to manage the stress if they've learned coping strategies before they get to campus, says Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. She recommends listening to an iPod loaded with relaxing music and getting exercise. A 2010 Boston University study suggested that three hours of yoga a week may help fight off anxiety and depression; the practice boosted levels of the amino acid GABA, the brain's main calming neurotransmitter.
A student who is depressed may need more parental input—and professional help. Borba suggests that parents concerned by a marked change in behavior that lasts longer than a couple of weeks consider directing their child to the campus counseling center.
Students should take advantage of counseling services as soon as they start feeling overwhelmed rather than wait until the problem becomes immobilizing, Van Brunt says. "We fight against a stigma that counseling is only for those students who are weak or too crazy to make it on their own," he says, when the fact is that most students end up enjoying counseling and often feel better "after the very first session."
Statistically, he says, anywhere from 8 to 12 percent of students make use of the campus counseling center, half for serious problems such as depression or paralyzing anxiety, and half to talk about "normal adjustment conflicts like balancing a heavy academic workload, making new friends, and problems from home."
[Get 5 tips to avoid depression in college.]
Here are a few other steps newcomers can take to head off transition problems:
1. Get enough sleep: Arrive on campus with a sleep schedule that's realistic, suggests Keith Anderson, a psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A Columbia University study of more than 15,000 students found that those who went to sleep at midnight or later were 24 percent more likely to be depressed, and 20 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts, than those who went to bed before 10 p.m.
2. Make it your mission to "matter": A 2008 study in the Journal of College Retention found that mattering, or feeling needed and cared about, was the best predictor of a student's overall psychological and social well-being. The study's author, Andrea Dixon, an associate professor at Georgia State University, recommends reaching out to campus organizations over the summer. Being proactive about "creating bonds with others ahead of moving in can really aid your perception of being connected," she says.
3. Keep an eye on the clock when you're online: A 2007 analysis of an earlier study, known as the College Internet Use Study, by researchers at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maryland—Baltimore County found that instant messaging is generally good for social ties while gaming isn't. But there's an opportunity cost of sitting in your room during those first scary weeks to Facebook your high school friends. Students who have been in your place say that it's easiest to meet new people during the first month and a half of school; once groups start gelling, breaking in is harder.