Debate over data on the mental fragility of college students

A recent study suggests there is a need for more data to claim that today’s college students are more fragile:

The point, overall, is that given the dizzying array of possible factors at work here, it’s much too pat a story to say that kids are getting more “fragile” as a result of some cultural bugaboo. “I think it’s not only an oversimplification, I think it’s unfair to the kids, many of whom are very hardworking and tremendously diligent, and working in systems that are often very competitive,” said Schwartz. “Many of the kids are doing extraordinarily well, and I think it’s unfair to portray this whole group of people as being somehow weakhearted or weak-minded in some sense, when there’s no evidence to really support it.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed among those who study college mental health that there’s an interesting divide at work here: College counselors are so convinced kids’ mental health is getting worse that it’s become dogma in some quarters, and yet it’s been tricky to find any solid, rigorous evidence of this. Some researchers have tried to dig into counseling-center data in an attempt to explain this discrepancy. One recent effort, published in the October issue of the Journal of College Student Psychopathology, comes from Allan J. Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester who has devoted a chunk of his career to studying college suicide. Schwartz examined data from “4,755 clients spanning a 15-year period from 1992-2007” at one university, poring over the records to determine whether students who came in contact with that school’s counseling services had, over that period, exhibited increasing levels of distress in the form of suicidality, anxiety and phobic disorders, overall signs of serious mental illness, and other measures. (The same caveat I mentioned above applies here — such a study can only tell us about rates of pathology among kids who go to counseling centers. But it can at least help determine whether counselors are right that among the kids they see every day, things are getting worse.)

Schwartz found no evidence to support the pessimistic view. With the exception of suicidality, where he noted a “significant decline” over the years, every other measure he looked at held stable over the study’s 15-year span. In his paper, Schwartz rightly notes that there are limitations to what we can extrapolate from a study of a single campus. But he goes on to explain that four other, similar studies, published between 1996 and 2007, also sought to track changes in pathology over time in single-university settings, and they too found no empirical evidence that things have been getting worse. This doesn’t definitively prove that kids who seek counseling aren’t getting sicker, of course. But statistically, Schwartz argues, it’s unlikely that five studies looking at different schools would all come up with null findings if, in fact, there was a widespread increase in student pathology overall.

I don’t know this area of research but it sounds like there is room for disagreement and/or need for more definitive data about what is going on among college students.

A broader observation: claims about cultural zeitgeists are not always backed with data. On one hand, perhaps the change is coming so quickly or underneath the radar (it takes time for scientists and others to measure things) that data simply can’t be found. On the other hand, claims about trends are often based on anecdotes and particular points of view that break down pretty quickly when compared to data that is available.

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