A Year-End Reflection: The Crisis of Anxiety on College Campuses

The end of the year, a time for reflection in myriad ways, always has reminiscences on the famous people that died over the year, the most binge-watched Netflix series, and even the best books of the year. As an English professor, I usually gravitate toward those year-end reviews about language.

Dictionary.com selected “complicit” as the word of the year based, in part, on the interest it generated after Saturday Night Live broadcasted a satirical commercial of the same name. Merriam-Webster selected “feminism,” and cited events like the Women’s March on Washington, Hulu’s television show The Handmaid’s Tale, and the reboot of Wonder Woman as supporting validation. More recently, Merriam-Webster notes, was the rise of interest in feminism “in conjunction with the many accounts of sexual assault and harassment in the news.”

During the course of this calendar year, I taught hundreds of students and nine courses, and based on my classroom experiences, I opt for a much different word of the year: anxiety.

I first noticed a rise in anxiety this January, when I taught Margaret Atwood’s novel in my Women in Literature course. I had used this book before, but the reception was far different this time. Knowing that each classroom produces different outcomes and environments, I was not too worried at first. I blamed the anxious feeling on moving classrooms, the different mix of majors, and my own frustration with U.S. politics. I had just attended the Women’s March in Oklahoma City where thousands of people came to march on the Capitol – thousands of people in a red state. I assumed that my own experiences were affecting the way I was presenting this book.

Even though many of my students attended this march, the discussion of Atwood’s highly relevant book, along with other texts like Toni Morrison’s Sula and Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother, felt stilted, forced. It wasn’t until I mentioned this to a graduate student who had taken this class before that I considered what was really happening. This student suggested that a course discussing feminism, patriarchy, and power would be different in Trump’s America. Shortly after she made this comment, I read the mid-semester reflections from the class and discovered that the majority of these students (male, female, and gender non-binary) were experiencing a type of anxiety. The readings were resonating differently for them.

I was not alone in noticing changes in education. Focusing on high school students, UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access conducted a survey in May 2017 on changes in school climate, and therefore on teaching and learning, during the first months of the Trump administration. Some results included:

[if !supportLists]❏ [endif]Stress and anxiety grew in schools with few white students;

[if !supportLists]❏ [endif]Polarization has increased in white-majority schools;

[if !supportLists]❏ [endif]Charged political rhetoric has affected students;

[if !supportLists]❏ [endif]Teachers need support to mitigate these negative changes.

Although this study focused on high school campuses, I can attest to the same changes on my college campus. In January 25, 2017, a hopeful USA Today article about teaching in the Trump era concluded:

Whether or not professors have had to alter their readings or design completely new courses in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, they expressed a universal hope that their classrooms could act as a safe haven for free exchange of ideas, despite the harsh divisions laid bare by the 2016 election.

I did not change this course because of the election results, and I created a safe haven for frank discussion, but in the spring of 2017, it seemed my students’ anxiety prohibited us from looking at these books in ways that could address how women in literature (and I would argue outside of literature) could have power, agency, and autonomy.

This past fall, I noticed a different kind of anxiety growing in my students, one that may not be directly related to U.S. politics. When I walked into one of my literature courses, saying hello to my 20+ students, I noticed that one student was having a difficult time. Her face was red and she was hyperventilating. I was immediately concerned that she was having some kind of allergic reaction. When I asked what she needed, she told me she was having a panic attack about what she was going to do with her life.

I would like to say that I handled it well. But, unfortunately, I did not.

Instead, I began telling her that we all are anxious about the future. I told her that I was panicked driving to work because my mother’s impending visit was stressing me out. It is truly painful to reflect now on how absolutely clueless I was about what was happening.

I began noticing a growing number of students who were “not doing well” or “being too stressed” to finish an assignment. About the same time, I came across two important texts that helped me become more understanding about what anxiety means to this generation.

Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s October 11, 2017 article in The New York Times, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” suggests a growing problem facing teens in the United States. Denizet-Lewis states that the American College Health Association found that the number of undergraduates who feel overwhelming anxiety is now 62%, a rise of 12% in five years. The Higher Education Research institute at UCLA reports that in 1985, 18% of incoming freshmen felt overwhelmed by what they had to do. In 2016, that number was 41%. I too have noticed these changes in the 11 years I have taught undergraduate students.

Still, my own anxiety – that flippant comment about being anxious about my mother’s visit – is far different than what my students are experiencing, and that is probably why this article in New York Times was one of the most emailed and shared for weeks. I was especially intrigued by Jake, one of the teens profiled in the piece, who makes it to college after significant effort. Jake and the other profiled helped me understand the ways in which anxiety is affecting adolescents, many of which appear on our campuses. I implore you to read the article if you have not.

Whereas Jake’s struggles, and those of other teens discussed in Denizet-Lewis’s piece, are real and moving, it was a fictional character, Aza Holmes, from John Green’s newest young adult book, Turtles All the Way Down, that helped me better understand the effects of anxiety of this generation’s adolescents. In the course of this phenomenally moving narrative, Aza struggles to maintain a relationship with her best friend while falling in love with another lost soul. Throughout it all, her mother tries her best to help, but Aza continues to pull inside herself. At times I wanted to tell her to snap out of it, but more often than not, I was drawn into her mind...unable to think of any way to help her.

Just to be clear, Aza suffers from both anxiety and an obsessive compulsive disorder that makes her thoughts spiral at times, and I strongly suggest listening to the Audible version narrated by Kate Rudd. I truly felt like I was inside Aza’s head, and when she says things like, “Actually, the problem is that I can't lose my mind...It's inescapable,” I found myself crying for her and for those who love her. I thought about the students sitting in my classes who may have a constant script of worry and pain spiraling as they try to listen, to think, to write, to live.

Aza’s condition is also the condition from which the author, John Green, suffers. In an interview, Green discusses his painful and personal experiences with OCD:

I want to talk about it, and not feel any embarrassment or shame...because I think it’s important for people to hear from adults who have good fulfilling lives and manage chronic mental illness as part of those good fulfilling lives.

This is worth repeating: chronic mental illnesses do not have to keep someone from a fulfilling life; likewise, our students who suffer from anxiety, whether it is part of a mental illness or not, do not have to feel isolated because they experience such inner turmoil.

With the number of adolescents affected by anxiety on the rise, I do believe college campuses must face this crisis and provide support services. After a year when I noticed external anxiety stemming from U.S. politics and internal anxiety from personal struggles, I move forward to 2018 cognizant that content matters and kindness can help students succeed. I do not suggest that each of us working with anxiety-ridden students have the training to affect certain changes, but I do suggest this crisis can be helped when we choose to be kind and willing to think beyond our own experiences. It is going to take all of us to make college campuses welcoming in an anxious time.

Photo: Freepik.com