The Real Lives of College Students Today
When we imagine life as a college student, we are often flooded with scenes out of a movie - sprawling campus quads with groups of enlightened college students, studious yet focused, engaging in intellectually stimulating conversation. We visualize students in aesthetically pleasing lecture halls, deeply engrossed in their studies led by a quirky, but profound professor who provides them with inspiration that leads them on the path to self-actualization. We believe students to have it all together, confident in their career choice and poised for future success.
What we fail to see is what's really going on behind closed doors at college campuses all over the country - students sitting alone in their sterile dorm rooms for hours, studying subjects they can't absorb and feeling like there's nowhere to turn for help. We find students struggling to balance academics and having a social life, feeling the pressure to party hard but lacking the executive functioning skills to prioritize studying for an upcoming exam. Students feel overwhelmed by the exuberant number of majors to choose from, aimlessly wandering through courses before having to figure out how they want to spend the rest of their lives and whether they'll make enough money to make ends meet. We hear about students who find it hard to connect with their peers, feeling left out and misunderstood after months of online learning and isolation. They fear their friends are more worried about posting on social media than being present in the moment with them.
During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide (Lipson, S. K., et al., Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 306, 2022). In another national survey, almost three quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress (National College Health Assessment, American College Health Association, 2021).
Our most recent class of college students feel disappointed, lost, and afraid. They feel overwhelmed academically and underwhelmed socially. They find professors are ill-equipped to address learning gaps and difficulties, moving full-speed ahead with material and teaching styles that no longer fit their generation and ignore mental health. Students are reporting an increase in anxiety, depression, and social issues than ever before.
Luckily, college students are advocating for themselves more than ever before, too. College students are open and willing to seek counseling services because they are no longer held back by stigma and have more access. With more access comes more demand and unfortunately colleges around the country and struggling to keep up.
When students access their college's counseling services, they are usually met with staggering wait lists and bursting caseloads. If they are scheduled to see a counselor, they soon find out that after only a few sessions they will be referred elsewhere. More and more overwhelmed students are seeking help, overwhelming their colleges. Even with growing staff, counseling centers cannot keep up. Meanwhile, troubled students are left with unmet needs. College students feel frustrated and let-down with this process and are seeking more person-centered, ongoing, and individualized services as a result.
For college students, it's important they feel heard and understood and this is only accomplished by building a genuine and trusting therapeutic relationship. With the lack of availability and long-term options on campus, many college students are now seeking individualized counseling in off-campus clinics and private practice settings. Individualized counseling can address the barriers to quality counseling services and give college students the tools and coping skills to navigate college as it really is today.