overwhelmed girl in a crowd: concept of anxiety and depression

College students report being stressed and depressed. A new program helps them weather an age of anxiety.

College students report being stressed and depressed. A new program helps them weather an age of anxiety.

  • 33% of surveyed college freshmen in 8 industrialized countries (14,000 students) meet the full criteria for at least 1 mental health disorder. (World Health Organization, 2018)
  • 30% rise in students seeking appointments at counseling centers between 2015 and 2019, even though enrollment grew by only 5%. (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2016)
  • 34% of 161,000 college students from 147 colleges/universities seen in counseling centers in 2016–2017 reported they had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2017)
  • 250 students have attended Adelphi’s Road to Resilience workshops.
  • Close to 1,000 students visited Adelphi’s counseling center, for a total of approximately 4,000 visits per year.
  • United Kingdom former prime minister Theresa May appointed a Minister of Loneliness, citing research that 9 million people in the UK identified themselves as “often or always” feeling lonely.

The social media feeds of college students may be filled with shots of partying, BFFs and smiling selfies, but the numbers tell a different story. Behind the happy facades, students nationwide report being stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, depressed or even suicidal. More students are seeking counseling, and institutions are struggling to meet the increasing demand for services. We’re in the midst of what’s called the College Mental Health Crisis.

Joshua Altman, PhD, associate director of Adelphi’s Student Counseling Center, said there’s no consensus among experts on why. Some say there is less of a stigma around mental illness; others say colleges are accepting more students with mental health diagnoses or point to the adverse effects of a 24-hour news cycle. But one thing is clear—the number of students with mental health issues and those seeking counseling is dramatically increasing across the country.

“Students are very hard on themselves,” Dr. Altman said. When things don’t go well, “they ask what’s wrong with themselves versus seeing these challenges as opportunities to develop further.”

Adelphi’s Student Counseling Center has been able to accommodate all students who need appointments. Nonetheless, Dr. Altman considered that since physicians encourage us to take preventive measures to improve our physical health, why couldn’t similar measures be developed to help students be proactive about their mental health?

So Dr. Altman developed the Road to Resilience workshop. “It’s about how challenges and changes can be opportunities for growth and personal development rather than destabilizing and debilitating,” he said.

Workshop participants learn how to change their ways of thinking: to see setbacks as transient rather than defining events, to realize negative feelings will pass and have hope that life will improve.

When Dr. Altman asks participants why the workshop is called “The Road to Resilience,” not “How to Be Resilient,” he explained, “they say although some people are naturally more resilient, everyone has the capacity to develop it.”

After presenting at a national conference, Dr. Altman has been contacted by other institutions about developing similar programs. “There’s a need and desire to learn more about resilience, grit and emotional fortitude,” he said. “Adelphi is on the cutting edge—we’re one of the few colleges or universities doing this type of programming, where we’re addressing a need in a new and creative way.”

The Road to Resistance—of the Tech Kind

One of the takeaways from the Road to Resilience workshops is to stop spending so much time on social media. Why? “You see what appears to be perfect people and perfect lives,” said Student Counseling Center Associate Director Josh Altman, PhD. “We’re left feeling that everyone else’s life is pretty good and why isn’t mine working out as well?”

Donna Freitas, visiting professor of English, is the author of several young adult novels as well as the nonfiction The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost (Oxford University Press, 2017). She said that beyond social media, technology in general—the distractions and urge to tap from site to site, from social media to text to email to cute cat videos—is resulting in student stress. “How are college students supposed to get through college if they can’t focus on their work because they’re constantly grabbing their smartphones?” she asked. “We’re adding more and more technology, but we need to recognize it’s designed to addict us. I worry that we’re not helping students develop healthy relationships with technology.”

As she wrote The Happiness Effect, Freitas was inspired to write Unplugged (HarperCollins, 2016), the first in a science fiction trilogy that takes place in a future where people leave the physical world to “plug in” to a virtual one. As one of the characters says about people from the past—perhaps ourselves—“Even though people’s brains weren’t plugged into the tablets, their minds and the technology became fused anyway…Technology changes us. Not just our behaviors, but our brain chemistry without us even realizing it.”

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