Stress stings first-year students

Feb. 3, 2011, 3:04 a.m.

College freshmen nationwide are suffering from record levels of stress, an annual survey of incoming students recently conducted by UCLA found.  This trend was echoed in the sentiments of Stanford faculty and administrators.

Stress stings first-year students
(ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily)

According to the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” administered by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, fewer students than ever consider themselves to be in high emotional health. Only 51.9 percent of students reported their emotional health to be “above average,” a marked decline from the 63.6 percent who did so in the first year of the survey, 1985.

Female students were less likely to report “above average” emotional health, with 45.9 percent of women and 59.1 percent of men placing themselves in that category.

Linda DeAngelo, assistant director for research at CIRP, says the findings reveal the growing psychological effects of the economic recession on the American college student.

“This year’s freshman class has been seeing the effects of the economy for several years,” DeAngelo said. “These freshmen have been seeing their friends and relatives graduate from college and not get jobs. And they increasingly have to cobble together funds from multiple sources to go to college.”

Faculty and administrators at Stanford report that they have observed increases in student stress over the past few years consistent with the findings of the survey.

Dr. Ronald Albucher, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Vaden Health Center, reports that CAPS has seen a “larger number of students coming through” in recent years. According to him, approximately 14 percent of the student population, including both graduate and undergraduate students, utilizes the center’s services at some point in the academic year. He estimates another 6 to 7 percent seek services off-campus.

Albucher echoed DeAngelo’s sentiment that economic belt-tightening may be a significant source of student stress.

“The recession has had a pervasive effect in everybody’s life,” he said. “Students have to consider their ability to afford college, their prospects for employment and economic issues within their family.”

Professor Cliff Nass, the resident fellow for the all-freshman dorm Otero, points to another factor more pronounced at elite schools such as Stanford: extremely high levels of personal drive and achievement.

“The kids that get into Stanford have had pressure-filled lives since they were young,” Nass said. “Their ambitions to get into Stanford started very, very early, and they’ve been stressed for so long that it cumulates while they’re in college.

Furthermore, Nass said that the pressure to excel has moved beyond the classroom, such that many Stanford students come to see their relationships and interactions with fellow students as sources of stress.

“Increasingly, Stanford students are worrying about social excellence,” he said. “Social life is no longer relaxing—it’s another domain at which to excel. And that’s sad.”

Albucher suggests, however, that it might not be fair to associate student stress levels so heavily with an environment of excellence.

“When you look at the big picture, you don’t see that the rates of mental health problems are more significant here [at Stanford] than at any other school,” he said. “Students are actually healthier and safer when they come to college, from both a physical and mental health perspective. They have access to insurance, clinical services and feel like part of a community.”

As for the notion that female students are more likely to suffer from high levels of stress, Albucher says this discrepancy may arise more from differences in reporting than from actual emotional differences between the genders.

“Female students are more likely to talk about it [the stress] and more likely to seek out help,” he said. “In general, male students tend to drink more and become more aggressive in response to being overwhelmed. Males are taught to be more independent, but this is changing, which is a good thing.”

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