I have this photo of me during college. I had wrapped up my presentation on my undergraduate research project that I had partially completed with one of my best friends. It’s taken during late October, which is not only the middle of the semester, but also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, when every local women’s-related event happens. While I’m glowing with excitement about my work, when I look at this photograph, what I remember is the complete and utter exhaustion that was my undergraduate experience.
The statistics on mental health and college students are jawdropping. 1 in 4 people between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness. More than 40% of collegs students have felt more than an average amount of stress in the past year. Eighty percent (EIGHTY) have felt overwhelmed, and 45% have felt like things were hopeless.
It’s easy to blame this mental health crisis on personal schedules. But in reality, this isn’t about the priorities of one student, or a small subgroup of young people. We have built a society that expects too much of college students. College students are not only in school full-time, but also are expected to pay most, if not all of their own bills. Depending on where they’re located, a full time job may not even cover their living costs, which means more student loans on top of tens of thousands to cover tuition, just to keep afloat. Working part time and a full course load is already enough; layer on necessary leadership opportunities, unpaid internships, a social life, relationships, sometimes taking care of a child or a sick relative.
These pressures, on top of all of the other stressors that can impact students, are too much for most adults; let alone us with predispositions to develop mental health disorders. Especially considering that in our early twenties is the time where mental health disorders start to show up. Traumas like sexual and relationship violence, deaths in the family, physical health issues, financial instability, and other oppressive traumas like racism, transphobia, sexism, homophobia, and ableism, is enough to break someone.
I work with student activists in my daytime work. While I feel so incredibly grateful for being able to surround myself with such young and bold brilliance, I also empathize with the students I work with; I remember the crushing pressure of college and the lifestyle. I see the students I work with struggle every day with balancing everything society expects them to do.
We as a society need to stop brushing off this mental health crisis as a rite of passage for young people. This is not normal. This shouldn’t be considered normal. We need to stop asking students, “what are your priorities?” and start asking ourselves and our communities the same thing. What are we going to do to protect young peoples’ health so they can continue to develop into stable adults?