College Freshmen Report: Students Are Stressed and Depressed

Annual survey says students' emotional health is at all-time low.

January 28, 2011, 7:13 AM

Jan. 28, 2011— -- Joel Raneri of Bartonsville, Pa., is a freshman at Syracuse University in upstate New York who has already begun to feel the stress of a 17-credit workload, a job at the campus news station and fraternity rush.

"A lot of times I feel like it's just too much and I need to take a breather," he said. "But there are people who have a much harder work load, and I don't know how they handle it.

"I worry about finding a job," said Raneri, 18, who will major in broadcast journalism. "Everyone says it's a dying industry but I am hoping if I work hard..."

His anxiety coincides with a new report -- the most comprehensive annual survey of full-time college students at four-year colleges -- concluding that the emotional health of college freshmen has dropped to its lowest level in 25 years.

The survey, "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010," was conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute and included 200,000 students. The number of freshmen who said their emotional health was "below average" has risen steadily, according to the report.

Only 52 percent rated themselves as "above average" in emotional health, down from 64 percent in 1985 when the survey began.

Raneri's mother, Debra Raneri, 49, who also attended Syracuse , said, "All I can remember worrying about in college was my class work and when it was due, nothing more.

"I don't think anyone really worried about getting a job after they graduated," she said. "I'd say life in general is more stressful today."

College counselors agree. They report seeing more students who are under stress, depressed and on psychiatric medications; drugs prescribed before the students even arrived on campus.

New York University recently overhauled its mental health services to provide around-the-clock help and relaxation programs after a rash of suicides.

"We acknowledge that college can be a wonderful and exciting time in a young person's life, but it can also be a stressful one because they are having to adjust to new academics, new friends, sometimes a new city and a new living situation," said Zoe Ragouzeos, director of counseling and wellness services at NYU.

That stress is compounded by a bad economy.

"Will they have a job waiting at the other end after spending $60,000 to $80,000 on a college education?" asked Brian Van Brunt, director of counseling at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association.

"They are struggling like no generation before with the question, 'Is college worth it?' It's a bit of a gamble at this point."

Men Less Likely to Seek Help

William Garner, a freshman psychology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., worries about mounting college debt.

"If I had money, I wouldn't necessarily have the stress," the 18-year-old said. "I can't even go buy books for my classes, so I definitely think about money every day."

The survey also noted that 39 percent of women had been frequently overwhelmed, compared with 18 percent of men.

The difference may be because of the stigma attached to going to the health center, according to Nate Cornell, a senior and president of the student body at Connecticut College in New London.

"The gender gap is pretty telling," Cornell, 22, said. "Guys still don't openly talk about their feelings. When I am feeling stressed, I head to the gym or watch TV with a friend or play [video game] Halo, and on weekends hang out and go to the campus bar. Girls feel it's more readily acceptable to go and get help."

College students say the pressure ratchets up significantly after freshman year as they move closer to graduation and must secure internships and, eventually, jobs in a weak economy.

"I am torn in three different directions," said Romen Borsellino, a junior at Amherst College in Massachusetts. "I have to do something to make money, got to build a resume and find something I like to do. That alone is terrifying, especially during a busy school year.

"The higher up you get in college, the more terrifying it is," he said. "The stakes are really high."

The academic rat race begins early. Yale professor Amy Chua published an essay this month in The Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," for instance, describing the pressure she put on her two teenage daughters to succeed: no sleepovers, no play dates, hours of violin practice.

"There's been a lot of talk lately because of the 'Tiger Mom,'" said Borsellino, referring to Chua. "There's got to be a middle ground between how hard our parents worked us and enjoying life."

The number of freshmen who said that they had been frequently overwhelmed by their senior in year in high school rose from 27 percent to 29 percent, according to the survey.

Callie Orsini, a senior at Maplewood High School in New Jersey, said the stress had begun for her at 13 with the first college information session.

Student Stress Begins in High School

"They were adamant about getting everyone on that track," Callie, 17, said.

By sophomore year, the pressure to pick a college was so intense that Callie couldn't sleep. So she started caring less and her grades suffered.

Her mother, Patty Orsini, said her daughter's high school years had been "fraught with uncertainty" and she knew Callie was pushing back when she shut down and wouldn't even engage in a conversation about college.

"I was aware this sort of thing started early and decided we are not going to get caught up in this," she said. "I am not going to push my kid to do everything, to build up the resume. Let them figure it out themselves."

"But it's very difficult to do that," Orsini said. "You start talking to people and everyone's kid is bright and exceptional. You are trying to pull back but think, 'I am not doing enough for my kid, I am not pushing her hard enough.'"

Callie has now decided to postpone college for a year to travel or do volunteer work.

As for kids' source of stress, a New Jersey tutor who helps high school students with their college applications said parents also contribute.

She had a confrontation with a parent whose daughter had been rejected early by the University of Pennsylvania but insisted that the tutor prepare applications for Yale and Harvard.

"She came to me at the 11th hour, a week before Christmas," said the tutor, who requested anonymity.

The mother wanted her to help the daughter write an essay but refused payment when it disappointed her.

"I am paying you $200 an hour to make my daughter look like superwoman," wrote the mother, who wanted the essay to portray her daughter as "the sun, moon and an angel."

"They have such unrealistic expectations," the tutor said. "It's very stressful, and they don't want to disappoint their parents. There's a lot of anxiety, and the whole process is really horrible and I don't know how to change that."

By the time many of these high school students arrive at college, they are already on psychiatric drugs such as antidepressants and the stimulant used for attention deficit disorder, Adderall.

"We have noted an increase in those coming to school with more mental health problems and more challenges," college counselor Van Brunt said. "You look at a lot of the problems in college now -- extreme violence and school shootings and even the cyberbullying -- and they are coming from the high schools. In some ways freshman year is the 13th grade."

As high school problems transition to college, counselors struggle to deal with them. For many students, freshman year is a "culture shock," he said.

"This is also the millennium generation," Van Brunt said. "The 'helicopter' parents are very involved. They chose to have children because birth control was an option. They have been involved in their high schools.

"They have children with learning disabilities who have individualized education plans and now they come to the college and the level of support isn't there.

"Letting go is part of the problem," he added. "But the good part is we are seeing students who were a higher risk who did not go to college before, but we have new psychiatric medications and therapies that can take care of their problems at a younger age."

Hannah McDonald, a Syracuse freshman, said, "You have no idea how stressed I am. It's a complete whirlwind."

She confessed that in high school she could concentrate on her academics and was a top student.

"My parents cooked my meals and helped me with my laundry," said McDonald, 18, who grew up in Cranston, R.I. "I am an only child and it's hard to say if I am spoiled. I have a great relationship with my parents and they'd do anything for me.

"But once I was on my own," she said. "I realized I sure did have it easy."

ABC News reporters Olivia Katrandjian, Danielle Waugh, Candace Smith, Kyla Grant, Clay LePard and Matt Phifer contributed to this story.