A group of us were getting together for the first time since graduation, reminiscing about our earlier selves.
“We were all horrible in college,” my friend said recently over drinks. “We were so status-obsessed and trying to keep up with everyone else who was status-obsessed.”
Another friend, sipping his beer, put it more succinctly: “We were all so depressed in college.”
He meant this literally.
Why Anxiety and Depression in College is Prevalent
It’s not just us. According to recent research, depression and anxiety affect one in five college students. Mental health issues aren’t limited to young people pursuing higher education. In fact, depression is on the rise among young adults in general, with depression among teenagers ages 12-20 increasing from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014. Among young adults ages 18-25, depression increased from 8.8% in 2005 and 9.6% in 2014. This has been tied to various factors, like the increase in social media use among teens.
Student Debt is a Major Trigger
But there’s another major driver of college students’ anxieties: student debt. Researchers have found that the ever-increasing rise in tuition harms students’ mental health. Student debt can dampen a student’s excitement about graduating from college and haunt their post-college plans. With 70% of college students graduating with debt, and the average undergraduate student debt a staggering $33,000, these anxieties are widespread.
That’s bad news for college students’ mental health. One study found that students with more than $25,000 in debt reported significantly decreased well-being than their counterparts with less debt, and this effect persisted even decades after graduation. The rising cost of tuition has gone hand-in-hand with stunning increases in college student homelessness, hunger, and economic insecurity, which in turn have a negative impact on mental health.
Meanwhile, stagnating wages and the mainstreaming of the unpaid internship can add an extra burden to students worrying about how they’re going to achieve professional success and put food on the table (if they can afford tables).
The Mental Cost of Pressures to Succeed
The top three reasons among college students seeking counseling are academic performance, pressure to succeed, and post-graduation plans.
Of course, we all want to work hard, plan for the future, and do our best to succeed. For students with massive debt to repay, failure to obtain a well-paying job after graduation can translate to financial catastrophe. These are big, society-wide problems, and we can’t solve them by addressing our individual mental health.
But we can adopt strategies to keep ourselves healthy in these demanding and precarious environments. That starts with saying bye-bye to unrealistic expectations and practicing self compassion.
Many of my peers in college used some variation of the phrase: “Work, sleep, or social life: pick two.” Most of us picked work and social life, sleep be damned — including me. In retrospect, I think we all would have been a whole lot healthier, kinder, and — dare I say it? — more productive if we cut down a little on the work part and added a bit more to the sleep part. Hey, it’s science.
Begin College by Setting Important Priorities
As we’re entering higher education, we can ask ourselves: what do I absolutely need to do, what would I like to do, and what can I skip? Getting good grades and learning skills in our chosen field are likely non-negotiable, as is taking some kind of paid work for many students.
But exercise, nurturing our relationships with supportive friends, and, yes, sleep should be in the non-negotiable pile, too. If you’re lucky enough to study in a college that provides resources like a free gym, free exercise classes, healthy dining hall options, or subsidized therapy, why not take advantage?
Meanwhile, taking a second internship or a third volunteer opportunity because all your friends are doing it may seem like a good idea, until you’re growling at your boyfriend over tiny stuff, wearing dirty underwear, and falling asleep in class. Saying no to opportunities is hard, but it’s also an important skill for being a real, live adult.
Many of us don’t have the luxury of cutting down on activities like paid work or demanding professional training. But in the areas that you can, lowering your unreasonably high expectations to “reasonably high expectations” for the sake of self-care is a gift to yourself.
It’s also a gift to everyone else in your life, who will get to interact with a caring and fulfilled loved one rather than a stressed-out zombie. I know it’s obnoxious when any older person says this to a college student, but: trust me, you will thank yourself later. Okay, you can roll your eyes now.
The Benefits of Hard Work and Gratitude
As for me? I’m grateful for the privileges I received in college, and hope that the experience I accrued in my overachieving, obnoxious zombie years helps me pay off those Millennial student loans.
But as I sat with my friends recently at that bar, I noticed that our faces and laughter are unmistakably happier now than they were back then. Yes, we may be underpaid graduate students and gig economy workers burdened with unreasonable debt. But by god, we get our eight hours of sleep each night.