Monday, May 17, 2010

Desperate College Students

Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise, but still I was shocked to learn that many of today's college students are suffering from an unprecedented level of despair.

Prof. Claudia Ricci has taught at SUNY Albany for a dozen or so years. Today, she is seeing something new among her students: "the number of seriously depressed and completely dysfunctional students seems to be on the rise. I was told by students this semester that the mental health clinic is so swamped and overwhelmed by desperate kids that the clinic is starting to turn students away if they have other resources available to them." Link here.

More students skip classes, more of them don't bother to hand in assignments, more of them hand in assignments that are barely passable, if that.

Admittedly, this evidence comes from only one campus. I suspect, however, that it represents a larger trend, one that ought to be studied in more depth.

I would like to know how many of these problems are specific to upstate New York, and its economic dysfunction. Do the same patterns exist in universities located in more prosperous areas, like the University of Texas, in Austin? How do students feel in Ohio and Michigan; in Georgia and Florida?

Ricci finds that many students are trying to study their way out of their despair. They are signing up for courses about happiness in record numbers. Ricci reports that the most popular course for Harvard undergrads is a course in happiness.

This is not a bad thing. If their happiness course teaches them some of the cognitive exercises that Martin Seligman has developed that will be a step in the right direction.

Ricci herself, a professor of English and journalism, wants to teach a course on happiness because, as best as I can tell, she wants to help these students. Somehow or other, as she sees it, too many are not being helped by the system that is in place.

After all the work therapy and psychopharmacology have put into treating depression, you would think that they would be doing a better job. Apparently, they are not.

Ricci suggests that students are desperate because they are too materialistic or perhaps because the economy does not hold out too much hope for their future. She emphasizes the first; I would lean toward the second.

If materialism is the problem, then, according to Ricci, mindfulness is a solution. Mindfulness derives from Buddhism and from Buddhist-inspired therapy. It teaches you how to slow down and take a moment to focus your attention on the lilac bush in the garden or even to savor that last sip of cappuccino.

No rational person can take exception to these suggestions, so I will not. Still, I do not believe that they address the larger problems.

As for the larger problems, I will offer some educated guesses.

At the risk of sounding repetitious, I would emphasize that, whatever the moral issues, a steady diet of hook ups is simply not good for your mental health. I will admit that most older people do not really understand why young people have allowed themselves to get caught up in this habit, but, the evidence seems to suggest that it is not working out very well for the young people who are practicing it.

If you act like someone who does not respect him or herself, the you are going to feel like you have no self-respect.

Another reason might be that they are simply preparing for a future in which they will have less than their parents. I doubt that the nation is being consumed by materialistic urges. I believe, on the contrary, that it is preparing to move from an age of seemingly limitless abundance to an age of scarcity and want.

College students are well aware of the fact that their job prospects are not very good, that their chances of having an opportunity to strive, to compete, and to excel in a free job market will be limited, and that their future earnings have, for all intents and purposes, already been spent.

If you were a college student today, would you be optimistic about the future? Would you be able to define a goal clearly and believe that you could achieve it?

Today in the Wall Street Journal Sue Schellenbarger reported that people who work in industries that are expanding and hiring more people have largely better moods than those who work in industries that are retrenching and laying people off. Link here.

Surely, it makes sense that America would feel more despair as unemployment stays at such a high level.

Ironically, most of these students voted for the most spendthrift administration in human history. Did they realize when they were casting their ballots for hope that they were being had? Is that the reason why their hope has turned into despair.

And then again, they also voted for a president who began his tenure by apologizing for America, by diminishing American national pride, and by trying to make us all feel guilty for the terrible things America has done.

How much does the loss of national pride influence how much pride Americans can have in themselves, in their efforts, in their daily labor?

There are many reasons why leaders never, never, never talk down their countries. One is that they do not want to lose the respect of foreign leaders. The other must be that a leader should promote the good of his people, and no one ever felt good about themselves for being part of a nation that has so much to apologize for.

Of course, this presidential attitude reflects lessons that are also taught on college campuses. If we assume that a course in happiness could help students learn some techniques for improving their mood, we can also assume that courses in critical theory, courses that criticize and demean their nation and the accomplishments of their parents, are not going to make them feel worse about themselves.

It may just be one course among many, but Prof. Ricci's new course in happiness will help counter that trend.


Ralph said...

In the local college I attended recently I saw a large number of students come in late, miss class, etc.

The number one reason the young people go to school is to get a good job. Very few talk about starting a business, or just see it as investing in themselves (satisfying curiosity about the world).

Most kids in beauty or barber school want to own their own shop one day, and many do. I wonder how these persons rate on the depression scale? I am just thinking that the best way to develop skills is by doing, and becoming skillful and competent increases self worth. I wonder how the lowly beautician, mechanic, brick layer, cook, etc. rate on the depression scale.

Not that I am advocating no one go to college, it just seems that larger enrollments have not led to the promised benefits of an educated society: One that is well mannered and thoughtful and content (in the St. Paul sort of way, busy and productive). Understanding the importance of your vocation is kind of like "to thine own self be true."

Stuart Schneiderman said...

As you say, a lot of people are rethinking the value of a college education, especially a liberal arts education, in today's job market.

I believe that a lot more students are majoring in business and finance than are majoring in English and classics.

And, as you mention, many students do not learn how to be well-mannered and respectful, how to show up on time, in college. Somehow the atmosphere, coupled with their despair over their future, induces them to develop habits that have no place in the workplace.

I am going to post some more about it later today, but nowadays many of these graduates of prestigious institutions have very few good job prospects.