Col­lege stu­dents’ anxiety is ‘epi­demic,’ study says

The Tribune (SLO) - - News - BY DAR­RELL SMITH dv­[email protected]

To­day’s col­lege stu­dents are grow­ing more anx­ious, un­rav­eled by fi­nan­cial un­cer­tainty and con­sumed by the dig­i­tal de­vices that hold in­creas­ingly im­por­tant sway in their lives, early re­sults of a new UC Berkeley study show.

Re­searchers are sound­ing the alarm.

University of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley, pro­fes­sor Richard M. Sch­ef­fler of the university’s Gold­man School of Public Pol­icy calls it “the new epi­demic,” the ti­tle of his team’s ex­am­i­na­tion of col­lege stu­dents’ well-be­ing: “Anxiety Dis­or­der on Col­lege Cam­puses: The New Epi­demic.”

The study an­a­lyzes data from 2008-16. The find­ings are pre­lim­i­nary, Sch­ef­fler stressed, de­signed to in­crease public aware­ness of the is­sue. A more de­tailed report with its call to ac­tion will be re­leased in early sum­mer, the Berkeley re­searcher said, that looks more specif­i­cally at the causes and con­se­quences of stu­dents’ anxiety.

The im­pli­ca­tions are far reach­ing, from the bil­lions of dol­lars spent treat­ing young adults with the dis­or­der – the study pegged treatment costs in 2015 at $3 bil­lion, three times the money spent in 2008 – to dra­matic in­creases in emergency room vis­its to the ef­fects on col­lege stu­dents’ fu­ture earn­ing power.

Sch­ef­fler and an eight­mem­ber team crunched the num­bers, thresh­ing nine years of na­tional data on stu­dents’ well-be­ing and talk­ing with UC Berkeley stu­dents about their experiences with anxiety and what they be­lieved drove those feel­ings.

The early re­sults are sober­ing, draw­ing a picture of a col­lege stu­dent more likely to visit the ER for anxiety-re­lated causes, more costly to treat and less likely to earn as much as their coun­ter­parts with­out an anxiety dis­or­der.

The study shows: Stu­dents ages 18-26 are seek­ing help at dra­mat­i­cally greater rates. The per­cent­age of stu­dents ages 18-26 who said they had been di­ag­nosed with or treated for anxiety dis­or­der in the last 12 months dou­bled, from 10 per­cent in 2008 to 20 per­cent in 2016.

More than 15 per­cent of stu­dents in the UC sys­tem also re­ported anxiety dis­or­der in 2016, the fi­nal year of the study.

Sch­ef­fler said he was sur­prised by the ini­tial find­ings dur­ing a brief tele­phone in­ter­view this week with The Sacra­mento Bee. “When I saw that those rates dou­bled, that shocked me. I didn’t ex­pect that,” he said.

But stu­dents’ anxiety and their general well­ness have been is­sues for some time on col­lege cam­puses.

In 2017, data gath­ered by cam­puses as part of the Na­tional Col­lege Health As­sess­ment showed that 1 in 5 stu­dents strug­gled with sleep. At Davis, it was 1 in 4. One rem­edy: on-cam­pus ham­mocks sponsored by a Cal­i­for­nia En­dow­ment grant to encourage power naps and con­struc­tive re­lax­ation on the Davis cam­pus that could pay dividends in the class­room.

At Sacra­mento State, the university in re­cent years has opened a per­ma­nent food pantry and cre­ated an emergency hous­ing pro­gram and emergency fund for stu­dents who are strug­gling fi­nan­cially.

Cam­pus anxiety is felt across the spec­trum of race, gen­der, eth­nic­ity and sex­ual iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, fam­ily’s ed­u­ca­tion and in­come – stu­dents from fam­i­lies who strug­gled to pay their bills were nearly three times more likely to suf­fer anxiety dis­or­der than their bet­ter-off coun­ter­parts, the study showed.

What­ever the fac­tors, the col­lege years can be rife with stres­sors and un­cer­tainty, said Ron Lutz, director of coun­sel­ing ser­vices at Sacra­mento State.

“A lot of it – when you dis­till it down – is how you’re go­ing to man­age sit­u­a­tions of life – the ba­sic needs of food and shel­ter or stu­dent loans,” Lutz said. “A lot of stu­dents are un­cer­tain about their fu­ture – it’s hard for them to en­vi­sion a bright fu­ture for them­selves. Those 18 to 26-year-olds are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble be­cause they haven’t been through a lot of life experiences.”

Lutz says that means coun­selors and others need to de­velop new or dif­fer­ent ways to treat anxiety is­sues be­fore they be­come prob­lems.

The march to Grad­u­a­tion Day fur­ther fu­els that anxiety. A se­nior, for in­stance, is 65 per­cent more likely to report be­ing treated for or di­ag­nosed with anxiety dis­or­der than a fresh­man, the study reads.

An­other set of data caught Sch­ef­fler’s at­ten­tion: the sharp rise in rates of anxiety dis­or­der among black, His­panic and Latino, Asian/Pa­cific Is­lan­der and trans­gen­der stu­dents. Trans­gen­der stu­dents’ re­ports in­creased by nearly two-thirds be­tween 2008 and 2016. The in­crease in anxiety rates for His­panic or Latino stu­dents was 150 per­cent, as was the in­crease for Asian and Pa­cific Is­lan­ders. The rate was even higher for black stu­dents, at 180 per­cent.

The data ap­pear to show col­lege stu­dents’ age-old anx­i­eties sur­round­ing aca­demics, money and time, and the drive to achieve, suc­ceed and grad­u­ate, are ever more more am­pli­fied in the dig­i­tal age.

“This is a na­tional epi­demic on col­lege cam­puses. That’s the most as­ton­ish­ing thing I found,” Sch­ef­fler said.

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