College frosh are depressed for some reason


Long ago, while I was working in Charlotte, the editors in my newsroom decided to do one of those sure-to-win-awards projects in which they would use hard statistics, personal interviews and a strong spine of new poll data to answer a big question. The question: What is the state of teen-age life in Charlotte?

Then, as was the trend in the '80s, the paper's "civic journalism" hook would be to proceed on to a multi-day study of what the big issues were in teen life and what local officials could do to improve this whole situation. The goal was to produce action in the community.

Well, as the religion writer, I didn't hear the details of this project until it was too late to have any practical impact on planning the details. After all, this was sure to be a project about education budgets, social programs and other government matters. What would that have to do with religion?

When the poll numbers came back, want to guess the No. 1 factor in teen happiness and success?

The key was whether teens were from an intact home, with a mom and a dad. Well, no moral or religious questions there, right? And if I remember correctly, the No. 3 factor was the amount of time that the family was involved in one or more organizations outside the home that provided help, leadership and guidance for teens. You know, like the Boy Scouts, the local library or, for thousands of teens in a city in which one of the major local roads is Billy Graham Blvd., there are these things called churches and their youth groups and even school-related networks, like Youth For Christ.

Alas, the series was already planned. It was too late to dedicate a day to the role that faith played or did not play in the lives of teens in this major Bible Belt city. It was a missed opportunity.

I thought about that history lesson when, as a college professor, I read the following New York Times story that ran under the headline, "Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen."

There is no religion it this story at all, of course. That's sort of the point. Here's the top of the story:

The emotional health of college freshmen -- who feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high school -- has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.

In the survey, "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010," involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as "below average" in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.

Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened.

Campus counselors say the survey results are the latest evidence of what they see every day in their offices -- students who are depressed, under stress and using psychiatric medication, prescribed even before they came to college. The economy has only added to the stress, not just because of financial pressures on their parents but also because the students are worried about their own college debt and job prospects when they graduate.

There were foundational problems with the study, according to critics, in large part because the students were evaluating their own state of mind, with no common standards or definitions. However, for me the key was that the whole story framed the big problems -- such as depression and stress -- strictly in terms of academic pressures and economics.

Now, please don't get me wrong. I know that the economics of life today are creating major new problems for students. I know that there are pressures to succeed, internal pressures and parental pressures as well. Some students spend their undergraduate years stressed out because they are not sure they can get into the right grad school. The cycles go on and on.

But what about the stress of shattered relationships? The break-up of their homes and families? People may disagree about the nature of the "hook-up culture" and its effects, but few people on the right or the left think the current sex-and-alcohol circuses on many campuses is a good thing. Talk about pressures? Depression? And none of these realities have moral or religious content. Right?

That's a subject for fierce debate, which, again, is the point I am making.

Read the story for yourself. Did I miss something? Does anyone else sense the ghost in this topic?

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