“If we could ‘calm down’, we would. Obviously,” writes one student quoted in a February 9th, 2018 article from of The Chronicle of Higher Education which gives voice to student anxiety and how pervasive it has become in institutions of higher education in the United States.
I’m entering my fourth year as a university professor and am astonished at the number of my students that need help dealing with temporary or permanent mental illness. I saw this issue of The Chronical on my department head’s desk this spring and asked him if I could keep it.
The numbers surrounding this issue, as stated in the article, are staggering:
- 26% of undergraduates and 17% of graduate and professional students report that anxiety has affected their academic performance – American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, Spring 2017
- More than one in four students report symptoms of anxiety. – The Healthy Minds Study, 2016-2017
- More than four in 10 freshman say they feel overwhelmed by all they have to do, compared with fewer than two in 10 freshmen in 1985. – The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016
- 22% of students have used psychotropic medication in the past year. – The Healthy Minds Study, 2016-2017
- For seven straight years, anxiety has been the top complaint among students seeking mental-health services. – Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey 2015-2016.
There are more statistics in the article but I believe we don’t need to read this article in The Chronicle to realize this is happening at Virginia Tech, too. I graduated from VT in 1995 and, while we had a Student Health facility, I don’t recall having a counseling center, either because their wasn’t a need or because there wasn’t a willingness to recognize the need. I was anxious in college but there was a stigma associated with admitting to any sort of mental illness that made it taboo to even discuss it. I’m thrilled that times have changed and we now have Cooks Counseling Center, but why do the statistics show that anxiety in college has increased in the last 20 years?
The academic advisors in my department are some of the best, if not THE best, on campus. They discuss students’ well being with the faculty constantly. Each semester they even have a student ‘watch list’ with names of students we are concerned about. I haven’t yet had a semester as faculty where I didn’t contact the Dean of Students about a student I was worried about.
I remember my first semester teaching, saying to anyone who would listen, “I wish I had a degree in psychology or counseling because it seems required to be good at this job.” I spend a considerable amount of time identifying, contacting or talking with students about how they are coping (or often NOT coping) with all of the demands of their senior year.
Some students interviewed for the article say they felt comfortable talking to a TA about anxiety but not their professors, “mostly because I didn’t feel comfortable enough. Based off of comments they made during lectures, I assumed they weren’t very empathetic toward this subject.” I don’t know for sure, but I feel like most of my colleagues don’t feel it is their job to look after students in any way that is outside of academics. One student was quoted as saying, “I wish they would even care to ask.” Some professors contact students if/when a student’s grades begin to drop. If those professors could simply add to the end of the email something about the counseling services the school offers, the students might feel more supported.
“When someone shows concern or simply listens, that can make all the difference, students say….Being approachable is always salient: “If you are willing to talk to students,” one wrote, “or walk them to a counselor on campus who can, then you may be helping more than you know.””
Though I have yet to understand why anxiety has increased so much since I left college, it cannot be ignored. I feel it is my responsibility to be the professor that helps students academically AND mentally. It only takes a little bit of extra time, but if my effort to reach out to the student can make a difference in their life, I feel it is time well spent.