Why Do So Many College Students Have Anxiety Disorders?

Diane Dreher photo

Source: Diane Dreher photo

A recent article in the New York Times reported that 60 percent of today’s college students suffer from anxiety disorders and psychological distress (Wolverton, 2019).

What has caused this dramatic escalation of anxiety in our young people? Some explanations might be early childhood trauma, a biochemical imbalance, or the stress of economic insecurity and political polarization in today’s world. And yet earlier generations managed to thrive during the Depression, World War II, Watergate, and the Vietnam War.

Research points to three changes in our culture that could be undermining the mental health of today’s college students.

1. An increase in materialistic values, an emphasis on materialism, consumerism, and financial success. Research by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA shows that college students’ number one value is now “being well off financially,” while for students in the 1960s it was “developing a meaningful philosophy of life." This increase in materialistic values appeared in the 1980s and has remained constant (Astin, 1998; Eagan, Stolzenberg, Zimmerman, Aragon, Sayson, & Rios-Aguilar, 2017). Research has associated materialistic values and extrinsic goals with anxiety, narcissism, depression, and illness (Emmons, 2003).

2. The rising cost of college. In the past, higher education was considered a public good, not a private product. Until the 1980s, it was supported by state funding and federal grants, making it affordable for all students who had the aptitude and motivation to attend college. For example, in the 1960s, tuition at the University of California was $86.50 a semester and only $35.00 a semester at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Students could support themselves and work their way through college with part-time jobs, taking charge of their lives, embracing agency and adulthood in their late teens and early 20s. Today, while two-year community colleges remain relatively affordable, the University of California’s tuition is $13,225 a year and private college tuition can be $50,000 and more, with room and board another $20,000, making college out of reach for many of today’s young people (UCLA undergraduate admissions, 2019; Powell, 2018). Students look to their parents to pay for college, remaining economically and emotionally dependent children, unprepared for adult life.

"What’s a good investment? Go home from work early and spend the afternoon throwing a ball around with your son." - Ben Stein on CNN

3. Delayed adulthood and external locus of control. The high cost of college reinforces a pattern of developmental delay that psychologist James Arnett (2000) has called “emerging adulthood.” At an age when earlier generations made their own decisions and exercised greater control over their lives, many college students remain, by their own admission, “kids,” relying on their parents to pay their bills, choose their majors, and even do their homework.

Raised by well-meaning “helicopter parents” who constantly control and protect their children, young people have been denied opportunities to exercise initiative and do things for themselves. It is no wonder that many of them experience overwhelming stress when they face the challenges of college life (Egan et al, 2017).

Psychologist Jean Twenge (2000; Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004) has found an increase in both anxiety and external locus of control in today’s college students. In our research, my colleagues and I have found that students with controlling parents have a high degree of emotional immaturity as well as an external locus of control, believing that their lives are controlled by people and forces outside themselves (Dreher, Feldman, & Numan, 2014).

And sadly, today’s college students display a more external locus of control than 80% of college students in the 1960s—a disturbing finding, since external locus of control has been linked to poor physical and mental health, anxiety, and depression (Twenge, 2004; Chorpita, 2001).

Hillary Rodham Clinton (mom of Chelsea): When my daughter was younger, I would say, “‘Chelsea, you’ve never been a baby before, and I’ve never been a mother before, and we’re just going to have to help each other get through this.”

Traditionally, the college years have been a time of dynamic personal growth, a time when students developed their adult identities by exploring new ideas and opportunities, exercising greater agency, responsibility, and control over their lives. Unfortunately, today materialistic values, college costs, and controlling parents are impairing this vital developmental period and undermining our students’ ability to flourish.