College freshmen feel the pressure

College freshmen feel the pressure

February 28th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

The emotional health of college freshman has dropped to the lowest level in 25 years, according to nationwide survey of first-year students, but local college counselors say it isn't a surprise.

Many first-year students surveyed for The American Freshman study published by the University of California in Los Angeles entered college on the tail end of the country's economic meltdown and have been saddled with their families financial woes, along with increasing pressure to perform at higher levels.

"Counseling centers across the nation have seen a rise in the amount of mental health concerns and the severity of mental health concerns," said Nancy Badger, assistant vice chancellor of student services at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "They are coming in for things other than roommate concerns or breakups. [Now] it's clinical depression, generalized anxiety or bipolar disorder."

Of the nearly 202,000 freshman surveyed from 279 universities nationwide for The American Freshman study, 51.9 percent classified themselves as having high emotional health, a drop of 3.4 percent from the year before. Overall, fewer woman than men had high emotional health - 45.9 percent versus 59.1 percent.

"Emotional health has been trending downward and feeling overwhelmed has been trending upward," the report states.

Badger said many students are entering UTC already on medication. The counseling center, which has two psychologists, an addiction specialist and two counselors, brings in a psychiatrist - an M.D. that can prescribe drugs - once a week to help manage the influx of clinical cases.

Overall, the number of UTC students with mental diagnoses more than doubled from 2009 to 2010 to 79, she said.

Total counseling sessions increased from 1,010 to 1,380, said Ed Smith, assistant director of the UTC Counseling and Career Planning Center.

"We have definitely done more counseling than career planning here," Smith said. "When I used to go to conferences for college counseling, the topics used to be relationship issues and study skills. Now it's all medical.

"Part of it is that medications have improved and allowed students to attend schools that wouldn't be able to," he said. "Part of it is that there is more family dysfunction. We have less [mentally] functional people able to come to school."

Officials with Chattanooga State Community College said they are seeing much of the same. From 2009 to 2010, personal counseling appointments and the number of students with mental health issues increased, but officials said they don't keep track of the number of students who come in with emotional problems. The school's counseling center sees students for an array or issues, including class and career problems.

"Anytime you see an increase, we are concerned for those individuals," said Belinda Smith, a counselor at Chattanooga State.

More students, especially women, see themselves as academically capable with an increasing drive to achieve, according to The American Freshman survey. The number of students who said they were overwhelmed their senior year in high school increased from 27 percent in 2009 to 29 percent this year, the study showed.

At the same time, parental unemployment is at a 25-year high, forcing students to lean more on loans, grants and scholarships to pay college costs, the report states. Fifty-three percent of students surveyed use loans, while the number of students receiving financial aid is the highest in nearly a decade - 73.4 percent.

More students also were staying closer to home or living with their parents and, because of money, weren't able to attend their first choice for college even if they were accepted.

"There has been no improvement in job prospects for parents - an issue that impacts thousands of incoming college students," the report states.