Are Cultural Currents Imperiling Students' Mental Health?

Are Cultural Currents Imperiling Students' Mental Health?
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There’s been a lot of talk over the past year about the toll that COVID has taken on the mental health of our nation’s youth. New results from 138,000 college students surveyed by the University of Michigan’s Healthy Minds Network add to a troubling picture. Thirty-four percent of college students reported that they have anxiety, a quarter that they often felt isolated, 40 percent that they experienced depression, and more than one-in-five that they had inflicted “self-injury” within the past year.

“Freshmen and sophomores are struggling the most,” explained Marcus Hotaling, president-elect of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, noting that some students had lost loved ones to COVID and all had “missed out” on “milestones that ease younger students’ transition to college life, like prom, graduation or even an in-person senior year.” At the same time, he suggested that “students’ growing interest in therapy doesn’t necessarily mean more students are unwell . . . It could mean that more students feel comfortable speaking up about their mental health.”

Now, that may be. And he’s obviously right that the isolation wrought by the pandemic, school closures, remote learning, and lockdowns has had devastating consequences. Yet, it seems vital to ask what other forces might be at work.

Aside from losing the structure of a “normal” school year to COVID, many of these college freshmen and sophomores have spent their teen years in an environment where shared social and cultural norms have been under attack and where there’s a risk that any in-person or online interaction can morph into a social media nightmare. If teens are constantly bombarded, in pop culture and in classrooms, with the suggestion that their nation is evil, that they and their parents are either oppressors or oppressed, that the phrase “boys and girls” may be deemed offensive, and that even Disney films require trigger warnings, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if many seem unmoored and anxious.

Meanwhile, the culture of “safetyism,” as explained by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in the The Coddling of the American Mind, has encouraged youth to view themselves as fragile and to distance themselves from ideas that make them uncomfortable. Schools and colleges have accommodated these demands by cancelling speakers, offering safety spaces, and sanctioning professors. Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel have similarly observed that schools have contributed to a “therapism” that “pathologizes normal human emotion, promoting the illusion that we are very fragile beings and urging grand emotional displays as the prescription for coping.” Under this crusade, schools even eliminate games like dodgeball or tag for fear they might “hurt” a student’s self-esteem.

All of this builds upon the loss of community and connectedness, the degree to which screen time has displaced live interaction and social relationships, and a profound decline in trust of public and private institutions. In an era where many college students may be more likely to have adopted their life philosophies from a TikToker they’ve never met than from their parents or pastors, it’s no wonder they’re distressed and lonely.

Ultimately, it’s not enough to treat the symptoms of our students. More therapy and more counseling may help in the short-term, but the larger challenge is to ask forthrightly about the source of all this distress. While the high rates of student mental health problems may be due to nothing more than COVID-19 or an increasing comfort with therapy, we suspect there’s more to it. It’s very possible that, sometimes with the best of intentions, we have unleashed cultural currents that are bad for the health of our young. This should be front and center as counselors, college presidents, parents, and policymakers ponder these results.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Tracey Schirra is a research associate at AEI.

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