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What’s Worrying Our College Students?

Levels of student stress and anxiety have been increasing.

Key points

  • Levels of student stress and anxiety have increased significantly over the past 20 years.
  • This increase could be linked to stressors affecting this age group generally, such as social media, or to changes in higher education, such as tuition fees.
  • One way in which the psychological distress experienced by students is manifested is as chronic or pathological worrying.
  • The increase in stress and anxiety is likely to result in an increased demand for mental health and well-being services in colleges and universities.

Levels of stress and mental health problems reported by college students have been steadily increasing over the past 20 years. College and university students are a population experiencing very particular stress-related challenges from a variety of sources. These include the challenges of acute periods of intensive learning, living away from home for the first time and lacking access to key support networks, exposure to drinking and drug-related activities, and student debt – and many of these factors have been shown to contribute to poorer psychological functioning (e.g. Cooke, Barkham, Audin, Bradley & Davy, 2004[1]; Brown, 2016[2]).

As a result of these demands, longitudinal studies have indicated that student distress rises on entry to college and does not return to pre-college levels until the end of their course, up to one in three students reports clinical levels of psychological distress, and it appears to be an international phenomenon that affects students in many different countries (Bewick, Koutsopoulou, Miles, Slaa & Barkham, 2010[3]; (Bewick, Gill, Mulhearn, Barkham & Hill, 2008[4]); Rückert, 2015[5]).

What is interesting about the reported increases in measures of mental health conditions in students is that the increases appear to have happened slowly and steadily and do not seem to be easily associated with a single identifiable cause. Researchers have pinpointed a number of factors that may be relevant to this rise in reported symptoms, and these include increased student numbers, increased class sizes, less personalized tutor support for students, and increasing tuition fees (Bathmaker, 2003[6]; Gani, 2017[7]). However, the increase in the reporting of mental health problems in student populations may simply be reducible to general psychosocial factors that have caused an increase in the reporting of mental health problems in young people generally (e.g. Calling et al., 2017[8]; Pitchforth et al., 2018[9]). Other factors might include the growing negative influence of social media and cyberbullying on young adults, economic downturns in the early and mid-2000s, and a later entrance into the labour market for young adults as a result of increased educational demands in many countries (Jacobsen & Forste, 2011[10]; Davey, 2018[11]; Carleton et al., 2019[12]; Mishna, Regehr, Lacombe-Duncan et al., 2018[13]; Calling et al., 2017). Further detailed research will be necessary to evaluate the relevance of each of these factors.

One way in which the psychological distress experienced by students is manifested is as chronic or pathological worrying and an increased risk for anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), of which pathological worrying is the cardinal diagnostic feature (Farrer, Gulliver, Bennett, Fassnacht & Griffiths, 2016[14]). While worrying is a cognitive activity that some people find helpful when it comes to problem-solving and dealing with future threats and challenges, for many other individuals, worrying can become a chronic and pathological activity. This pathological nature of worrying is characterized by a number of features – worrying begins to feel uncontrollable, a bout of worrying becomes perseverative and difficult to stop, and worrying increases rather than decreases levels of anxiety (Davey & Meeten, 2016[15]).

What's Causing Increasing Levels of Worrying?

At the University of Sussex in the UK, we have collected data on the frequency and severity of student worrying for over two decades since 2001, and retrospective analysis of these scores suggests an increase in the severity of student worrying of around 20% between 2001 and 2019. This gradual increase in student worry scores over the past two decades is consistent with other reports of increases in anxiety and stress-related symptoms in student populations and young adults generally (Pereira, Reay, Bottell, Walker & Dzikiti, 2019[16]; Carleton, Desgagné, Krakauer & Hong, 2019; Calling et al., 2017; Pitchforth et al., 2018).

It is not easy to determine what has been causing these gradual increases in worry scores over the last two decades. It could be a result of an increase in the number and frequency of psychosocial stressors affecting this age group in society generally (e.g. increased mobile phone penetration, and social media and internet usage, cf. Carleton et al., 2019; Davey, 2018), or it could be an effect of changes in higher education that specifically affect college and university students (e.g. the introduction of tuition fees, changes in teaching and assessment methods, and post-college job availability).

However, an alternative explanation for these increases in reporting of mental health problems in students and young people is not that symptoms per se have been increasing, but the reporting of symptoms has increased over time. For example, although they identified a striking increase in the reporting of mental health conditions in young people between 1995 and 2014, Pitchforth et al. (2018) surprisingly found little change in scores on questionnaires related to psychological distress and emotional well-being. Calling et al. (2017) noted that over time people have become more informed about mental health problems and are more willing to discuss these problems.

This would particularly be the case if the level of stigma associated with mental health problems has decreased over recent years. However, it would require a retrospective comparison of self-reported worry measures with corresponding objective and independent measures of symptom frequency and severity to resolve this – and it is likely to be very hard to find studies that have such comparable retrospective epidemiological data available using the same methodological setting. But nevertheless, even if the increase in student worry levels over the years is only a result of facilitated reporting, it is still likely to result in an increased demand for mental health and well-being services – a challenge that student counselling services are already aware of (Broglia, Millings & Barkham, 2018[17]).


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