Why Are College Students Reporting Record High Levels of Stress?

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College students are more stressed out than ever before — at least according to the latest findings of a large, national survey that has been conducted annually for the last 25 years. The survey includes more than 200,000 students attending nearly 300 colleges and asks them to rate how their own mental health stacks up with their classmates’ — for example, is it “above average” or in the “highest 10%”?

This somewhat unusual methodology typically results in the statistical Lake Woebegon effect in which most people tend to overestimate themselves in relation to others (it refers to the fictional Lake Woebegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average”). But the most recent results indicate that fewer and fewer freshmen feel like they are in top form in terms of coping with stress.

A quarter century ago, nearly 70% of freshmen put themselves in the top 10% of mentally stable people in their class; today only 52% rate themselves that highly, down 3 points since last year. Students’ self-esteem, however, is still robust: a full 71% of freshmen put themselves in the top 10% in terms of academic abilities. (More on Time.com: Why Other People’s Happy Facebook Updates Make You Sad)

It’s hard to know what these numbers actually mean: obviously, it’s not mathematically possible for 52% or 71% of people to be in the top 10% of anything. And, as I explored in this post earlier today, people’s attempts to compare themselves with others are skewed in various ways. Nevertheless, the finding is in line with previous research, which found that almost half of all college students who seek counseling now have a major mental illness. That’s more than double the rate seen 10 years ago.

So what’s going on? Obviously, the economy and high unemployment rate make for a scary time to be in college, potentially facing terrifying levels of debt — that alone could account for the increase in stress.

Secondly, a much more rigorous large study recently found that empathy among college students had declined 40% since 2000 — and since caring relationships are essential to mental (and physical) health, a decline in empathy could also produce a decline in mental health and coping. (More on Time.com: College Students Are Short on Empathy)

My final point brings us back to my earlier post on a Stanford study that looked at the psychological effects of comparing ourselves to others. It found that the way people tend to conceal their negative emotions while broadcasting their happy ones makes the rest of us feel somehow “less than” — as though all our friends and neighbors have better lives than we do. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter seem to have made these comparisons even more harmful by providing the perfect venue through which people can perpetually present a perfect version of themselves.

This phenomenon, too, might tie into why the new survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms, Fall 2010,” found that students are feeling less confident about their level of emotional and mental stability. If all the students around you are desperately trying to put on a happy face — and you perceive that face as a true reflection of their inner selves, even as you work to hide your own sadness — well, it’s not surprising that so many students might be getting a bit stressed out.

Instead, if students were encouraged to feel safe expressing their honest emotions, even about their fears and failures, everyone might feel more connected, happier — and, yes, healthier. And Facebook’s News Feed would probably become a much, much more interesting read.

Check out a brief report on the new survey here.

More on Time.com:

The Rich Are Different: More Money, Less Empathy

Why Spoiled Babies Grow Up to Be Smarter, Kinder Kids

The Mommy Brain is Bigger: How Love Grows a New Mother’s Brain