When universities institute things such as “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” they often justify doing so in the name of protecting students’ mental health. Critics, on the other hand, argue that universities are more often protecting students from ideas with which they disagree and shielding them from the vicissitudes of adulthood.
But there’s at least some evidence students’ mental well-being may be a more legitimate concern than those commentators would suggest, even if the methods of addressing it are at times suspect. Analyzing both sides of this divide and weighing the available facts may help universities adopt more rational campus policies going forward.
To be sure, many of today’s headlines seem to give credence to those pundits who decry so-called “campus snowflakes.” In the wake of the recent presidential election, colleges provided safe spaces and counseling services for students “traumatized” by the result. Meanwhile, many North Carolina universities were holding final exam “relaxation” events. At East Carolina University and N.C. State University, students could play with puppies, and UNC-Chapel Hill offered therapy cats and mini-horses.
These cases seem to embody a problem identified last year by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in an Atlantic story, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The authors argued campus culture “presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.”
But it appears such a presumption is not entirely groundless. According to a survey by the American College Health Association, 17 percent of students nationwide were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the past year, and 13.9 percent were diagnosed with or treated for depression.
Nevertheless, some researchers cast doubt on such data because of its often limited scope and anecdotal nature. Issues with student privacy, sampling biases, and other statistical problems may inflate the severity of mental health issues or otherwise distort findings.
Consequently, researchers’ conclusions about what’s contributing to the apparent uptick in mental health disorders vary widely. Some say increased academic pressure and difficulty adjusting to college are to blame. Others point to the influence of social media and so-called “helicopter parenting.”
But in a Psychology Today article, Loretta G. Breuning, a professor emerita of management at California State University East Bay, offers a different explanation. She argues health professionals may themselves be to blame for the belief there’s a “crisis” of mental instability on campus. Breuning claims such professionals have overstated mental health statistics to justify requests for increased funding — a sentiment echoed by Jesse Singal in a New York magazine article, “The Myth of the Ever-More-Fragile College Student.”
According to Singal, “college counselors are so convinced (student) mental health is getting worse that it’s become dogma in some quarters.” He references a study of a “private, moderate-sized university located in the northeastern United States,” published in the Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, that found no evidence that students’ psychological problems increased over a recent 15-year span.
The conflicting evidence regarding the state of mental health on campus should give pause to commentators quick to brand millennial college students as “snowflakes.” But it also should give pause to university officials: They may be wasting resources to “solve” mental health issues that are non-existent or relatively minor.
Universities should carefully consider the extent to which they will diagnose and treat issues such as anxiety and depression. The results may vary by institution, as well as by student category. For instance, master’s and doctoral students may have a much higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, and therefore command more resources.
Higher education leaders should consider that university bureaucrats sometimes have a tendency to self-aggrandize. Student affairs administrators and campus mental health professionals may be tempted to justify their existence — and salaries — by aggressively promoting programs and activities hard to defend on their merits, such as the aforementioned post-election safe spaces and over-the-top therapy sessions.
In a recent James G. Martin Center article, social psychologist Clay Routledge wrote, “Nothing good can come from treating colleges like hospitals, places where sick students come to be quarantined and healed. Instead, we should treat colleges like fitness centers for the brain, places where students learn to build their mental muscles.”
For that to occur, schools must balance addressing legitimate emotional and psychological needs of their students while remaining true to their academic missions. When schools are in doubt, the latter should take precedence.
Stephanie Keaveney is a policy associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.