Next time your grandparents bust out that “walked to school uphill in the snow” line, you can let them know that your generation has its problems too—and there’s a growing body of research to back that up. A new study released this week shows that students today are more stressed and depressed than students surveyed during the Great Depression.
A professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Jean Twenge, is the lead author of a new study that analyzes the responses of high school and college students who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a popular psychological questionnaire, between 1938 and 2007. The analysis finds a sharp uptick in anxiety and depression among young people in 2007, compared to 1938. A full 31 percent of students experience “hypomania,” which is defined as a mix of anxiety and unrealistic optimism, compared to 5% in 1938, and 6% of high school and college students taking the survey could be classed as suffering from depression, compared to only 1% in 1938. More students also report trouble with authority or feeling like rules don’t apply to them.
While the study doesn’t conclusively show the cause of these increases, mounting evidence points to increased anxiety about finances and social status as a likely culprit. An Associated Press report on Twenge’s findings cites a national survey of college freshmen that found that 77% of 2008’s incoming college students considered financial success either “essential” or “very important” in their lives. Part of this anxiety could be due to increased concern about keeping up appearances and earning the admiration of peers, while some of it could also reflect much more concrete concerns about earning enough to be financially secure.
The recent recession has highlighted the uncertainty and instability of job prospects in many careers and it is increasingly difficult for students to game the system and find a “safe bet” at a high-paying career. Jobs in law and finance are down, and even students who majored in computer science, one of the go-to degrees of the last decade, can face difficulties finding good jobs. College costs have skyrocketed, admission has gotten more competitive at top schools, and research has shown that lower-income students lag behind richer students in completing degrees. Based on these very real concerns, it’s easy to see why high school and college students are stressed about money.
If you want to minimize stress and anxiety in your life, there are some concrete steps you can take. First, do what you love. If you don’t know what that is, spend some time exploring majors and careers that interest you through internships, volunteering, and taking a variety of classes. Find a college where you fit in and can excel—research shows the effort you put in is the biggest factor in determining what you get out of college. Take some time to look for scholarships to help you reduce the stress associated with debt and also reap some of the benefits of college success that have been associated with winning scholarships. Finally, if you're feeling stressed out about life and money, take some solace in knowing that you're not alone and that your school has resources, including counseling, that can help you cope.
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