Worried, Anxious, and Holding a College Degree?

“Anxious Students Strain College Mental Health Centers,” reads the title of a recent article in the NY Times. I work with college students so this wasn’t a surprising fact to read, but it caught my attention nonetheless. The university is in many ways a melting pot for all kinds of students – international students from Asia, the guy in cowboy boots majoring in agriculture, the partier on East Campus, the graduate student dressed to impress. All these students seem to have little in common, yet if this article is true, 1 in 6 of them have “been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety within the last 12 months, according to the annual national survey by the American College Health Association.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a student who hasn’t struggled with anxiety in some form throughout their 4 (or 5) years.

The article cites the usual causes you would imagine: schoolwork, money, relationships, paralyzing to-do lists. But it also says this:

“The causes range widely, experts say, from mounting academic pressure at earlier ages to overprotective parents to compulsive engagement with social media. Anxiety has always played a role in the developmental drama of a student’s life, but now more students experience anxiety so intense and overwhelming that they are seeking professional counseling…

Students arrive at college preloaded with stress. Accustomed to extreme parental oversight, many seem unable to steer themselves. And with parents so accessible, students have had less incentive to develop life skills.

“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Dr. Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”

Social media is a gnawing, roiling constant. As students see posts about everyone else’s fabulous experiences, the inevitable comparisons erode their self-esteem. The popular term is “FOMO” — fear of missing out.

And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.”

More and more students are turning to campus health centers to help them, but these centers don’t have the capacity to heal every student. Wait lists are weeks out, which means some students won’t even be able to see someone until the current semester is over. Students are buckling as they move through college.

I couldn’t help but feel a little bit hopeless as I finished the article. After all, if “the fundamental goal of campus counseling centers is to help students complete their education,” then what happens when it’s completed? Where are those students left? Worried and anxious about the next stage of their lives but now with a college degree?

A few thoughts to throw out there:

  1. None of us have the ability to soothe ourselves. Whether we grew up surrounded by helicopter parents or are natural worriers, we can’t ultimately be trusted to make ourselves feel better.
  1. Counseling is needed at times. It is a helpful tool that might be necessary at certain points of our lives. But community and friendship are always necessary. I wonder how much of these mild forms of anxiety could be treated with the thoughtful words of an older mentor or the listening ear of a friend, if only we could be vulnerable?
  1. While the goal of a campus counseling center might be to just get a student through college, “to complete their education”, Jesus is interested in more than just four years of healing. He tells us that the root cause of anxiety is lack of faith in our heavenly Father (Matthew 6:25-30). The therapy of his Word, Spirit, and promises can truly battle our sin. Our unbelief, our anxiety, can be treated so successfully by our great physician – not just in college, but over our lifetimes.
  1. Without Jesus, we can do nothing (John 15:5). Without Christ, we are stuck in the dark clouds of anxiety without hope of release. We’re hopeless, no matter how short the waiting list.
  1. I’m drawn to prayer. Living in Columbia, surrounded by college students, I want to care for them well. Join me in praying for their hearts – that students all over campus would come to know the comfort of the God who longs to know them and longs to draw them into his story.

Get alone with God. Read to yourself the promises of his salvation, of his care, of his tender mercy. Cast your cares upon him, because his promises are far more certain than your resume or your checking account.

The whole article is worth reading here.

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