Stress, sex and 'drunkorexia'

Stress, Sex and the Lives of College Students

Stress, Sex and the lives of college students

: Introducing College Confidential Part I

I know the secrets of college students and you should, too.

College students - especially young women - are under increasing amounts of stress, taking more and more medication to manage that stress, are seeking more help than ever from campus mental health programs and are reporting more depression than ever before.

What's going on?

Since I spend my days as a college teacher, I asked them what they make of the studies reporting how depressed, stressed and medicated they are. Here's the first in a regular series of posts from my perch reporting live from the trenches of college life. I'll offer true, unvarnished accounts of college students' experiences in their own voices, from their perspective.

One of the many privileges I've experienced from teaching - and from being the kind of teacher students confide in - is that I somehow got the secret passkey into the otherwise locked internal world of a mythical, unknowable creature called the college student. What you hear when you call your kid is that she's running to or from a class, is too sleepy or busy or stressed or cranky to talk, is fine, everything's fine, look I've got to go, yes I'm eating, no I didn't send grandma a birthday card...LOOK MOM I'M LATE AND REALLY STRESSED OUT IT'S NOT A GOOD TIME TO TALK I HAVE TO GO...


I hear something else. I hear a lot of details and dramas and self doubt and self exploration and issues of identity and love and sex and worry and responsibility. Some of your children are eating and some are starving themselves. Some are making excellent choices in life and love and priorities and some are 'drunkorexics' who starve themselves all day to binge drink their calories at night. I learn about many of these secrets only through my students' reporting on them as trend stories for their assignments in class.

Some are experimenting in classes and identities. Some are coasting. Some are sinking. Some are finding their voices, flying in the discovery of subjects and activities they love and the freedom to explore them to the fullest for the first time. Many are having sex. They want you to trust their smarts and their decisions. They are hurt when you don't. They want your love and approval and for you to know them better, on their terms.

The New York Times published a story headlined: Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen, on the disturbing findings of a study:

"The emotional health of college freshmen - who feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high school - has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.
In the survey, "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010," involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as "below average" in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.
Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened.
Campus counselors say the survey results are the latest evidence of what they see every day in their offices - students who are depressed, under stress and using psychiatric medication, prescribed even before they came to college."

Why I'm breaking the code

I am not a mental health counselor and I work with excellent professionls on campus if ever I suspect any student is struggling. I do spend a lot of time talking with students about their lives. The New York Times story and the study about college student stress and depression sparked many of my students to interview their peers and explore the realities of college life. They got me thinking about how I might share what I know to help bridge the communication gap between parents and their college students. Of course, I had to turn this into a teachable moment for my students. So I gave an unofficial, ungraded assignment - write letters to your parents about what you wish they knew, asked, and understood about your college life. I asked my students - past and present - to help me help them talk to their parents. 

In Part II, I'll share one of the most poignant student letters to her mom.

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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