Opinion-Policy Nexus

Recently, there's been a barrage of news reports about the growing number of university students experiencing severe levels of stress and mental anxiety.  This has sparked an important and much needed debate about how universities should address these issues, including one university, Queen's University, creating a task force to study the subject.

Although we lack comprehensive data on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that indeed, levels of stress and anxiety have risen, with various centres and workers indicating that they are seeing record numbers of students reporting mental distress.

Much of the debate so far has centred on figuring what universities should do to reduce stress and improve the mental health of their students.  What seems to have been lost in this debate, however, is the cause of this increase in student mental distress.  Instead, universities seem to be implementing a wide range of solutions in an attempt to cover all of the possible causes.  This scatter-shot approach to student mental health is necessary because, quite frankly, nobody knows why mental health issues are rising dramatically on campus.

So what are the possible causes? Very briefly:

1) Mental health issues have always been present on campus.  The difference now is that students are now willing and able to report them.

2) Related to (1), perhaps what we are seeing is not a rise in the student mental health issues at university, but simply a regression toward the mean. Perhaps what we are seeing on campus is simply what exists in the rest of society, with mental health issues on-campus now reflecting what exists proportionally off-campus.

3) University has gotten harder. Perhaps professors today are more demanding than their predecessors in terms of readings, assignments, and exams.

4) Poor preperation at high school. High school curricula and teaching pedagogy has changed dramatically over the last ten years.  Although these are really broad brushstrokes, gone are the day of rote learning, zeros for incomplete assignments, and mountains of homework.  Instead, strong emphasis on higher-ordered thinking, positive feedback, and experiential learning have left students unprepared for the university environment, which is a much more challenging and unforgiving learning environment.

5) Change in parenting styles. The advent of helicopter parents may leave students unprepared to fend for themselves in university.

6) Weaker students. Universities have grown exponentially over the last two decades.  University degrees have become a necessary condition for a good job, and so demand has increased for university education. Universities welcome this demand to feed its ever growing need for new revenues to build new schools and buildings.  To meet demand, universities lowered the minimum high school grade average that they required for students to get into university (as one colleague at another university put it to me, try asking the university administrators what their rejection rate for admissions was and the answer is probably close to zero!). The result is a new university population that is simply unprepared to succeed in university and so suffer sever mental distress as a result.

These are just a few possible explanations.  We badly need empirical studies to investigate and test these possible explanations.  In the meantime, it seems the scatter-gun approach is the only solution for universities that want to avoid the type of outcomes that Queen's has experienced over the last several years.



Tuesday, December 4, 2012 - 13:52