Like many freshmen at USC, Meghan Johnson, an undeclared freshman, is stressed. She is taking a biology class, a chemistry class and Johnson is enrolled in Thematic Option.
“There’s just a lot of work for those classes, so there is stress to do well on them and get everything done on time,” Johnson said.
This year’s college freshmen have the highest levels of emotional stress in 25 years, according to an annual survey conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.
The results of the survey, “The American Freshman,” are generally considered the most comprehensive representation of the emotional well-being of college freshmen. This year’s survey consulted more than 200,000 incoming freshmen at 279 four-year colleges across the country.
Only 51.9 percent of students rated their emotional health as “above average,” a decrease of 3.4 percent from 2009.
Because stress levels are higher than ever, the number of students seeking out help has risen, as well.
To adapt to the growth in demand, USC increased its counseling staff last spring. Two half-time psychiatrists and one full-time employee who helps students with referrals for therapy off campus have been hired, Rosenstein wrote.
“Grades, parents putting pressure on you because they want you to get good grades, scholarships to keep, there’s a lot of stressful things,” said Helene Jouin, a junior majoring in environmental engineering.
The survey also revealed an important gender gap: Less than half of the female students surveyed described themselves as emotionally healthy, compared with 59.1 percent of male students.
Dr. Ilene Rosenstein, director of Counseling Services at USC, said in an e-mail that, in general, females also seek out counseling more than males. At USC, 60 percent of the Counseling Service’s clients are female, Rosenstein wrote.
“We clearly have seen nationally and at USC an increase in symptoms in young adults,” Rosenstein wrote. “It is true at all college counseling centers across the U.S. that the numbers of students seeking counseling has increased significantly, doubling and tripling over the last decade. Universities have increased staff, understanding the importance of quick access to counseling, so minor problems don’t become bigger issues … We will continue to offer preventive programs while balancing the need for clinical demands.”
The results of the study also underscore the influence of the economic downturn and how it creates additional stress for students who worry about being able to pay for college. According to 62.1 percent of students in the survey, the recession impacted their college choice.
The anxiety induced by economic hardship doesn’t end once that choice is made. Dr. Kelly Greco, staff psychologist at Counseling Services, said she observes students facing the challenges of today’s economic climate.
“In terms of how the economy hits, how people survive financially and how this impacts [a student’s] family — so maybe they need to pick up a job because their family can’t support them anymore. I really see how this impacts them on a day-to-day basis, and then their academics,” Greco said.
According to the survey, more freshmen now depend on loans, grants and scholarships to pay for college. USC raised its financial aid budget this school year in response to increased need.
Many students find scholarships difficult to come by. Anar Bhansali, a sophomore majoring in business administration, has experienced anxiety in her search for scholarships.
“It’s very disappointing when you apply for so many and don’t get the scholarship that you want,” Bhansali said.
And though financial aid does relieve some stress, it comes with its own pressures.
Kristin Burger, an undeclared freshman, said she regularly experiences this pressure.
“Just being here costs a lot, so I have to watch everything,” Burger said.
With increased stress levels, it’s crucial that students learn the coping skills necessary to deal with stress.
“I can’t always do as well as I want to and that’s stressful,” Jouin said. “To cope, I run a lot. I feel like exercise makes such a difference, because when I exercise it’s a good way to vent.”
Greco emphasized the importance of being aware of outside resources, such as counseling services at the University Park Health Center, and having a network of people — peers, family, faculty and advisers — to rely on.
“It’s really important that people continue to reach out and get the support that they need and use coping skills,” Greco said.
“It is true at all college counseling centers across the U.S. that the numbers of students seeking counseling has increased significantly, doubling and tripling over the last decade,” Rosenstein wrote. “The good news is that treatment, including therapy, works and gives lifelong skills to help students reach their goals.”