Students on the Edge

Mental health task force calls for more resources and a cultural shift.

May/June 2009

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Students on the Edge

Matt Mahurin

“I was meeting with a golden student the other day, and I said, tell me about a time you failed,” recalls Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, an associate dean for religious life. “He looked at me with panic in his eyes and said, ‘That is not a fair question.’”

Karlin-Neumann is one of 48 staff, faculty and students who served on Stanford’s Mental Health and Well-Being Task Force, which released its report in the fall. What she and her colleagues heard, over and over again, was that even when students are succeeding academically, college can become overwhelming, and not all of today’s students have the skills they need to cope with it.

Although most students are psychologically healthy—and, indeed, college students suffer from most mental health problems at slightly lower rates than their nonstudent peers—college counselors nationwide report that more and more students are asking for help. In a 2007 national survey of college students, 15.3 percent reported having been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, up from 10.3 percent in 2000. In addition to the increase in diagnosis, colleges must grapple with an increase in severity: the success of modern antidepressants and other psychoactive medications enables more students with serious psychiatric conditions to remain at school, rather than on leaves of absence. Finally, administrators say, some members of the “millennial” generation seem to be less able to cope with stress than their predecessors.

“This is the time in the life span in which there’s the highest incidence of onset of mental health problems—late teens, young adulthood,” says task force member Ira Friedman, who directs Vaden Health Center. “I think we have more teens coming to Stanford who couldn’t have performed at this level in the past, who have access to psychiatric help and medication. Then you add to that that our general students who are not having true mental health problems are incredibly stressed by the rigors they find here. It occurs to us that some of our students are not as resilient as they may have been in the past.”

Denise Clark Pope was one of the first to observe this societal trend in her 2001 book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students. In it, she described a new generation of driven and ambitious high school youth who were embracing grueling routines, experiencing sleep deprivation and curtailing social lives—all in the name of academic success. Next stop: college.

“In the past, a typical kid might come to a place like Stanford and get his first low grade ever; normally, you have the coping skills to handle that,” says Pope, ’88, PhD ’99, a lecturer in the School of Education who served on the task force. “But literally, these kids don’t know what to do. They’re exhausted, they’re completely fried by the time they get here, because of what they had to do in high school to get here: give up their entire social life and focus just on getting grades and good test scores.”

Unlike previous generations, young people often speak with their parents several times a day. And while family closeness is usually a positive force (most students quickly acknowledge that they would never have gotten into Stanford without their parents’ support), it can come with a downside. Administrators at Stanford and elsewhere describe a level of parental involvement that often limits choices and has altered the cultural norms of college life.

That includes parents who insist on choosing their child’s area of study and then show up to negotiate his or her salary after graduation. Parents who ask to be informed about course deadlines because they’re sure their kid will forget without their reminders. Parents who call the dean’s office at 10 a.m., desperate because they haven’t been able to reach their son or daughter that morning: would someone please run over to the dorm and wake their scholar?

“There’s a lack of trust that the kid can do it without them and that the consequences would be so devastating that they better do it,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, ’89, the dean of freshmen. “These parents are fostering dependency. Like the parent who shows up for graduate school orientation, right with the graduate student. It’s just not appropriate to carry your parent through your life like that.”

By all accounts, Stanford has a high-quality student-support network. Its biggest strength, many say, is the undergraduate residential education system—nearly all students report that their residences offer an important source of community and support. Vaden Health Center offers counseling and wellness services, and the Bridge provides peer counseling. Students can take advantage of the strong communities within the ethnic, women’s, LGBT and graduate community centers and the Office of Accessible Education. An area that could use attention, the task force found, was academic advising, though it also noted that students’ expectations of advising can be unrealistic.

So why don’t more students get the help they need? Students and administrators chalk it up to the Stanford Duck Syndrome: the idea that a student has to act calm on the surface, all the while paddling furiously below water to stay afloat.

The weather is beautiful. The campus is stunning. Healthy, smiling students are everywhere. In this kind of environment, many say, it can be hard to admit you are struggling. “According to the Princeton Review, Stanford is the happiest place in the country,” says vice provost for student affairs Greg Boardman, who chaired the task force. “It kind of fulfills the idea that if everyone else is so happy, then something must be wrong with me.” One member of the task force, notes the report, “suggested Stanford students do not experience a ‘dog-eat-dog’ environment. They experience ‘dog-eat-self.’”

“We’re dealing with a generation of students whose sense of worth is determined by their résumé,” Karlin-Neumann says. “The way they’ve handled pressure is by being successful academically and they may not necessarily have the tools for everyday crises. They bring with them a great deal of internal pressure.”

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