Why are students so anxious?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Was I this anxious as a college student?
Google Trends shows an increase in the search popularity of “anxiety” over the past 15 years:
Here, numbers on the y-axis represent “search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means there was not enough data for this term” (trends.google.com).
Interestingly, searchers for stress and depression are more consistent over time, while searches for anxiety seem to be rising.
This relative increase in the search for “anxiety” is even clearer if we collapse across year:
Is anxiety truly on the rise? Are people more aware of anxiety? Who is anxious?
There have been changes in the DSM criteria for diagnosing anxiety over the years, so it’s difficult to know whether changes in diagnostic criteria relate to increased rates of diagnosis. Awareness of mental illness has risen over the years, and the stigma surrounding mental illness has decreased, both of which may also contribute to a rise in diagnosis.
Interestingly, anxiety is more common in high-income countries, but anxiety is higher among lower SES individuals within Western countries. There are a number of possible explanations for this including symptom reporting, lack of diagnosis due to genuinely challenging life situations, or the impact of relative wealth/stability within a country or region. In general, anxiety is most common among young, unmarried females with less education/wealth.
Colleges are facing an especially alarming increase in anxiety. For the past several years, anxiety has surpassed depression as the number one presenting concern at counseling centers in the US. According to the National Health College Assessment, the rate of anxiety diagnosis rose by 45% from 2008 to 2014 and approximately 32% of teens will have met the criteria for an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Many students anecdotally point to social media as a cause to the increase in anxiety. Research both supports and refutes this idea. A number of other factors may be contributing to the rise in anxiety as well, including (but not limited to) college debt and financial uncertainty, sociopolitical factors, globalization and increased choice, and academic life and pressure.
I have not been teaching in a higher education setting for long, but I anecdotally sense the rise in anxiety among my students, as well. I don’t remember being as anxious as my students seem to be, and I spent a reasonable amount of time crying due to overwhelming anxiety in the library during college. But I remember those episodes being rather punctuated and related to specific exams or papers coming up.
Students seem to start feeling anxious before the semester even starts. When I send out my “get to know you” survey at the beginning of the semester, one of the main things students write in the section where I ask them “Is there anything else I should know about you (e.g., preferred pronouns, things that may affect your attendance or performance, etc..)” is that they are anxious. Some students have written “I’m just anxious all the time” and others will say “I get really anxious about exams” and others will write “I’m worried about doing well in this course.” It amazes my how many students will write something to the effect of “I’m anxious,” “I’m worried,” or “I’m stressed.” The worry pervades their daily lives instead of being tied to specific events or assignments. Every assignment, every exam, every paper is a threat to be anxious about.
In addition to the usual suspects listed above (i.e., social media, financial, academic pressure), I also wonder how a sense of uncertainty impacts student anxiety. As globalization increases and our world expands, we may be faced with the wisdom paradox: the more you learn the less you know. It’s difficult to characterize whether a sense of personal control has decreased or feelings of uncertainty have increased, but we are facing issues like economic inequality, climate change, increasing nationalism, immigration crisis, the aging epidemic, technological advances, automation, and so many more. Although our students may not be directly exposed to each of these issues, or they may be unaware of them altogether, together they create a climate of uncertainty (whether or not it’s warranted). This may feel overwhelming – like the future is unpredictable. Then, the uncertainty of college may further exacerbate this feeling.
- Ruscio, A.M., Hallion, L.S., Lim, C.C.W., et al. (2017). Cross-sectional Comparison of the Epidemiology of DSM-5Generalized Anxiety Disorder Across the Globe. JAMA Psychiatry. 74(5):465–475. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.0056
In the news/media