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The Stressful Lives of College Students

On August 12, a co-authored article discussing the emotional health and well-being among Americans of all generations from teenagers to post-65-year-olds written by Magali Rheault and Kyley McGeeney, revealed a wide disparity of emotional satisfaction and well-being among various age groups. The study revealed that older Americans, those 60 and above, demonstrated significantly better emotional health than their younger counterparts. In fact, the study showed that septuagenarians (people between the ages of 70-79) were far more likely to be emotionally content than their 20- and 30-something counterparts. The result hailed true even when they were broken down by gander, race, education, martial status, employment, class and geographic region. The study was based on more than 500,000 interviews conducted between January 2010 and June 2011 as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

What was notable about the study was the fact that the younger people were, the less likely they were to be content. In fact, statistics showed that less than 1 in 3 Americans between the ages of 18-24 has high emotional health. This is the generation of people who are most likely to be college students. This fact alone is alarming. 

For those of us who have attended college at some point in our lives, we know that it is a time of continual transformation. You are constantly dealing with new (and in some cases) unexpected situations. You have finally reached official adulthood and all the freedoms, challenges and unpredictability associated with such a transition. While college can be a very liberating time in a person’s life, it also can be an overwhelming and potentially problematic experience for many.  A recent study conducted by the organization National Health Ministries entitled “Stress and The College Student” produced the following:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in college populations

  • Eating disorders are highest among college women, especially upper income White women
  • 7.8 percent of women and 12.3 percent of women between the ages 18-24 report  frequent mental distress
  • 30 percent of college freshmen feel overwhelmed a great deal of the time
  • 10 percent of college students have been diagnosed with depression

 The reasons for such riveting statistics can vary.  Among such reasons are:


  • Academic demands of a college environment
  • Being in a new environment
  • Financial responsibilities
  • Exposure to new surroundings
  • Being away from home for the first time
  • Making decisions for oneself for first time
  • Awareness of one’s sexual identity
  • Substance abuse

A person’s psychological make-up can also play a role. People with low self esteem who view themselves and the larger world as hostile are more inclined to suffer from some degree of dysfunction and mental illness. Being in such a constant state of distress can only contribute to other more premature aliments which can often lead to shorter life expectancies. 

Moreover, the less-than-stellar economy, ongoing wars and the general overall feeling that our current world is in a rapid free fall has probably contributed to this sense of gloom and doom. This is a generation that has witnessed the horrific, infamous event of 9/11, economic recessions, deadly diseases and international strife since the time they were in elementary school. Such traumatic experiences have undoubtedly have had an effect on their psychological outlook. In response to this crisis, there are a number of colleges and universities such as Emory University and Grinnell College that have added extra staff to their counseling centers to assist college students who may be undergoing some sort of trauma. Other higher education institutions have decided to include student health fees as an overall part of their tuition package to make such assistance available to all students.

Regardless of the reasons, it is clear that too many people in this age demographic (including college students) are living in a state of eternal discontent. This is a sort of mental torture that no human being should be forced to endure. Hopefully, this study will be a wake up call that will hopefully bring widespread attention to this issue.  After all, most, if not, all of us want to live to become septuagenarians and octogenarians or nonagenarians or centenarians for that matter, if we can.

Dr. Elwood Watson is  a professor of history, African American Studies, and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several books and articles. His latest work Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture published by Indiana University Press.

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