Mental health on the decline

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In a recent University of California-Los Angeles survey of students at four-year colleges and universities nationwide, first-year college students’ self-ratings of their mental health dropped to record low levels in 2010.

The survey is part of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program and is administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

The study revealed only 51.9 percent of students reported their emotional health was in the “highest 10 percent” or “above average.”

This was a decline of 3.4 percentage points from 2009, and a large drop from the 63.6 percent who categorized themselves as such when self-ratings of emotional health were first measured in 1985.

Although students’ emotional health took a downturn, their ambitions and academic abilities showed upward trending in the survey.

A record high 71.2 percent rated their academic abilities as “above average” or “in the highest 10 percent,” and 75.8 percent rated their drive to achieve in the same way.

Linda DeAngelo, assistant director for research of the program and co-author of the report, cautioned students against looking for coinciding relationships between busy, involved first-year students and their declining mental states.

“Based on our results, first-year students are somewhat more anxious and stressed,” she said. “But despite declined emotional health, students still want to get the most out of college.”

One factor that is more likely to have an effect on students’ emotional health is finances. This is the third year in a row the survey reported economic strains as having an effect on student stress levels.

“In addition to the normal stressors of college, it seems as if these continuing economic strains are affecting emotional health,” DeAngelo said.

First-year college students have watched the economy make finding jobs difficult for recent graduates, and are relying more on loans, grants and scholarships to help offset the cost of higher education.

The survey also said the percentages of students reporting unemployed fathers and mothers were at all-time highs, at 4.9 and 8.6 percent, respectively. DeAngelo said two-thirds of students surveyed in the study said costs affected their college choice.

Still, the survey said students are conscious of the value that a college degree confers. More students than ever before, 72.7 percent, said “the chief benefit of college is that it increases one’s earning power.”

The survey indicated this belief corresponds with policymakers’ efforts for public investment in higher education as a way to stimulate the economy.

In terms of helping first-year students cope with the many stressors facing them in college, the study does not elaborate much; it is, after all, only a snapshot of students’ mental health, not a solution to the problem.

“Colleges will certainly need to work with students to learn and grow and achieve their degrees,” DeAngelo said.

Through the Resident Assistant program, Marquette is doing just that.

Maritza Lopez, a sophomore in the College of Business Administration and an RA in Cobeen Hall, said she knows what it feels like to be a stressed-out freshman overwhelmed by the newness and financial worries of college.

“I’m a first-generation college student, and I know that financial aid is a big stressor,” she said. “As an RA, I know how to listen to freshmen and direct them to resources to help them.”

She added confidence comes with more time on campus.

“Sophomores have more confidence, but for freshmen this is all new,” she said. “I encourage freshmen to search for options and keep looking for help if they need it.”

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