Monday, January 25, 2016

College Students and the Severity of their Concerns

Much has been written concerning recent cohorts of college students and their reported difficulties. See a prior post concerning one debate on this issue. These students are called, by various authors, slackers, socially inept, narcissistic, poorly equipped to cope, entitled and demanding, and perhaps most frequently, more mentally ill than previous generations.

But none of this squares with my direct experience. Large-scale epidemiological studies in America and Canada refute the claim regarding mental illness. The most recent annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health notes that various indices of mental health have remained "generally flat" for the last five years. The authors hypothesize that noted increases, such as demand for services, are best thought of as "expected outcomes", that is, the result of increased attention and dollars devoted to mental health in higher education. It is puzzling that many continue to make contrary statements, including mental health professionals in my own field. Puzzling until one considers who or what may benefit from such reports: the profession itself. More specifically, the part of the profession oriented to the medical paradigm and the swift "delivery" of interventions such as medication.

There is little doubt that the current generation of students have distinctive attributes and challenges. But so did mine, and so did the one before mine. Many generational distinctions also happen to be positive, but one does need read much about that. Like so many things in life at present, one is more likely to read spin or distortions of data.

So where and how does the mental illness distortion originate? This is probably something that is over-determined, but one way this starts is via survey data. Two oft-reported data points come to mind. ACHA's "40% of college students report having been so depressed that it is hard for them to function", and AUCCCD's "85% of counseling center directors believe student's issues are more severe". Both are misleading. What is not reported in the first example is the meaning behind "depressed" and "function". Do 40% of students not get out of bed? Not sleep? Not eat? Not go to class? Higher education would collapse overnight if this were true. Regarding the AUCCCD survey item, I can testify as one who completes and submits it every year. The response options we are provided on the severity item include "increased", "decreased", and "unsure". "Remained the same" is not provided as an option. This would be my choice if it was. I believe this forced-choice results in a distortion, in this case an inflation concerning severity.

The data does say something, however it is not possible to say exactly what. One hypothesis is that both data points reflect a subjective sense of discomfort, and are mirror images of each other. Students are in fact uncomfortable and they readily admit to high levels of distress. Some of this is due to the stress and strain of growth and development. Some is due to changes in parenting patterns (about which I wrote previously). Some is due to global issues in politics, conflict, and economics. Many students have little faith that the degree they are working hard to earn will translate to a secure livelihood. In short, they are supposed to feel uncomfortable. I would too if I was them.

As for college counseling center directors, our discomfort is about meeting the needs of these students who are knocking on our doors with rising frequency. This is occurring in the context of a nationwide and chronic problem with under-funding and inadequate resources in many centers. Our subjective emotional state often involves something like panic and fatigue as we attempt to address the needs of the masses coming to us. We are supposed to feel uncomfortable too.

It's all about context. And context is missing from key surveys and thus the national discussion.