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Between constant deadlines and exams, and trying to figure out where they fit in the world, it’s no secret that college students are under a lot of pressure.
But new research has shown college students these days are feeling the heat even more. Fourteen percent of college students have been diagnosed with anxiety or treated for it in the last year, according to a survey conducted by the American College Health Association, surpassing depression as the largest mental health illness faced by college students. (By comparison, 12 percent of college students reported receiving a diagnosis for depression.)
This new data mimics a national trend: Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, affecting 18 percent of the population. While the organization says anxiety disorders are “highly treatable,” only about one-third of anxiety suffers receive treatment.
And, unfortunately, the rise in anxiety is hitting several generations. Millennial expert Jean Twenge, PhD, author of “Generation Me,” tells Yahoo Health that her research has found that high school students are also feeling more anxious. Her research also confirmed that anxiety is on the rise for college students, with 30 percent of students entering college between 2010 and 2013 reporting that they felt “overwhelmed by all I had to do.”
College students, at least, seem to be doing something about it. According to a nationwide study conducted by Penn State, more than 100,000 students who visit campus health clinics say they’re concerned by anxiety.
Anxiety expert Alicia Clark, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, D.C., says she’s not shocked by the findings. “Anxiety has been on the rise among young people for the last decade,” she tells Yahoo Health. “While we cannot be sure all of the factors that contribute to this, young adults appear to have more stress than in the past.”
Clark cites a more stressful college admissions process, and the pressure that can come with the personal, social, and mental growth that happens in college. “Sometimes, the stress and anxiety of these demands can feel like too much and anxiety can build,” she says. Students can even develop anxiety as a result of the financial pressure their families may be under to struggle to get them to college in the first place, she says, and arrive at school already struggling with anxiety.
Helicopter parenting can also be part of the issue, says Kathy HoganBruen, PhD, a psychologist who treats college students with anxiety disorders at The Ross Center. “Kids going off to college are often used to parents doing a lot for them, and having their time be very structured,” she tells Yahoo Health. “The trickle down effect is that these kids may not have failed as much in life or been as independent — they may feel anxious about it.”
Of course, anxiety is a normal part of life and can even be a helpful motivator. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it can develop into a disorder when the feeling doesn’t go away, gets worse with time, or interferes with daily life.
HoganBruen says it’s definitely a good thing that students are identifying that they’re struggling, adding that awareness is key to making improvements in anxiety sufferers.
But the new findings have troubling implications for the rest of us. “Often adult anxiety begins in the college years as do many mental health symptoms,” says Clark, who points out that too much anxiety can feed on itself and get worse if it isn’t properly addressed.
What do we do now? HoganBruen says it’s important for everyone (college students included) to step away from social media and devices every once in a while. “We have more instant gratification, more pressure to do more, and there’s that fear of missing out—that can have a psychological impact on people who are already feeling anxious,” she says. “We need to slow down more. It’s important for our mental health.”
Clark points out that anxiety is “dramatically worsened” by sleep loss, caffeine, lack of exercise, and poor diet, so if you or someone you love is suffering from anxiety, it may be time to look at those factors as well.
Think you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety? The Anxiety Disorders Association of America has a helpful breakdown of the symptoms of everyday anxiety vs. an anxiety disorder.