Survey: College freshmen are more stressed, depressed

Schoolwork, life balance a 'concern on colleges and universities'

According to an annual survey, the emotional health of college freshmen is at its lowest level in the last 30 years.

For the 50th "The American Freshmen" survey, considered to be one of the best snapshots into high school senior-year trends, researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles' Cooperative Institutional Research Program surveyed about 150,000 students at 227 four-year institutions across the country.

They found more students reported feeling overwhelmed or depressed in the past year, echoing some experts' concerns about the mental health of first-year students. The rate of students who frequently "felt depressed" grew from 6.1% in 2009 to 9.5% in 2014—the highest level since 1988, according to researchers. Additionally, those who "felt overwhelmed" due to commitments and schoolwork jumped from 27.1% to 34.6%.

Some freshmen may still be feeling the stressful effects of high school, where students are constantly reminded that they need to take senior year seriously in order to get into college and succeed, says lead author Kevin Eagan. He notes that the survey results show that students did spend more time studying—and less socializing. While generally that would be viewed as a positive development, it may also be the source of this added stress, says Eagan.

"There may need to be a balance that students need to have at some point, and helping students achieve that balance will be more of a concern on colleges and universities," he says, pointing out that students struggling emotionally have lower graduation rates.

Survey: Most college students grapple with depression

Social media stress

The study suggests that students have not become less social, even though they do not spend as much time socializing in person with friends, but rather have changed the ways in which they interact.

More than 25% of students reported spending more than six hours a week on mobile apps and websites. And, in a reversal of 1987 figures, just 18% of 2014's high school seniors said they spent more than 16 hours per week with friends, and 38.8% reported spending fewer than 5 hours.

Study: Millennials less lonely than previous generations

"It's fair to assume that for some significant portion of kids, time spent on social media is replacing time spent hanging out with friends," says Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent suicide among college students. "They're still connecting, but it's happening through a device," he says.

Some students, however, have pointed to social media as a stressor. Creating and maintaining an image on social media takes a lot of effort, says Suzanne Ciechalski, a freshman at St. John's University. "I feel like being a teenager or young adult, the pressure to try and make people see you're the best is really high," she says.

And though students may have moved online for much of their personal social interactions, they continue to value college social environments and activities, according to the report.

Straying from religion

Nearly 28% of freshmen said they did not have a religious preference, up with 24.6% last year. In 1984, only 8.8% of freshmen said they did not have a religious preference.

Some students pointed to a chaotic schedule as the reason they distanced themselves.

Gustavo Grinstein Planchart, a first-year mechanical engineering student at Lehigh University, says that he still believes in Catholicism, but does not practice anymore because "life has been busy" (Schwarz, New York Times, 2/5; Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 2/5; New, Inside Higher Ed, 2/5; Korn, Wall Street Journal, 2/5).

The takeaway College freshmen are entering school more stressed than ever, which means institutions may need to increase their support services to ensure student success.

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