Ah yes, college.
Four years of fun, frat parties, freedom and, oh yeah, some classes sprinkled in, right?
It’s a time and place where your biggest concern is trying to identify the mystery meat they serve each Wednesday in the cafeteria or decide upon which pair of kicks to wear to the Gamma Nu dance.
Listening to old heads wistfully regaling each other through beer-befogged memories with tales of their carefree university days, you’d be excused if you thought college was one extended Soul Train or American Bandstand dance line with books thrown in.
That’s certainly not what the college experience is like for many students today: they face pressures that didn’t even exist when we came of age.
Four students at N.C. State University have died as a result of suicide this semester, and their fellow students are demanding preventative action be taken.
There is also the increased risk of violence on campuses: in the past several days, three University of Virginia football players were gunned down on campus, and four University of Idaho students were found murdered in an off-campus home.
Imagine walking across the Quad en route to a Science exam while looking over your shoulder for a lurking shooter.
Add to that the stress of being away from home for the first time in a competitive environment in which everyone else’s online life looks like they reside inside the covers of Cosmo or GQ magazine, and it’s no wonder young people feel overwhelmed.
The American College Health Association lists suicide as the second-leading cause of death among college students.
I asked Dr. Anthony Smith, a Durham-based therapist who sees many young people, what’s going on.
“College has always been stressful,” Dr. Smith said, “but now students are faced with the pressures of social media and this desire to project a certain image.”
With everyone else’s online life looking perfect, he said, “there’s often a feeling that you have to live up to a certain standard, and if you don’t – life’s not worth living.”
With the internet and social media, he said, young people too often seek validation from external sources – how many “likes” they receive, for instance - rather than from inside themselves.
It is, of course, facile to blame everything on social media. There was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter et al when my college buddies and I wore our angst like a wet blanket we couldn’t shed.
And Lord, there was a lot of angst – the kind that had us gathering in Hubert’s dorm room regularly to drink cheap wine and listen to Dust In The Wind over and over because each of us – get this - thought the song spoke just to us.
“Just a drop of water in an endless sea” indeed.
Grade Point Averages, which many of us were told would influence everything from what kind of jobs we’d get upon graduation to what kind of grad school we’d get into to how white our shirts could be, have increased in college – no doubt putting even more pressure on students to excel: Over recent decades, the average GPA in college has risen from 2.52 to 3.15.
That may not seem like a lot, but it’s additional pressure on top of everything else young people are dealing with.
At one of the highly competitive colleges I attended, one could always tell when it was semester’s end, because there’d be ambulances on campus taking away students who’d become untethered for one reason or another and had had what was known as a “breakdown.”
Dr. Smith suggested that roommates and friends take note of “a significant shift” in how their peers “present themselves. If they are usually really neat but suddenly aren’t, that might be a sign of something going on with them. Or if they’re over-eating or under-eating, over-sleeping or under-sleeping – any big change can be a sign” that some type of intervention might be needed.
Of course, it's important to realize that nobody is going to be happy all of the time: I'm sure my roommates were concerned when I got my first romantic heartbreak as a freshman and played Breaking Up Is Hard To Do - the slow version - by Neil Sedaka 893 times in a row.
In response to the deaths at N.C. State, students recently led a wellness forum to address the problems their peers face, and the university responded with a Wellness Day, allowing students to chill and check in with parents and friends.
That’s a good start – and certainly more than what’s happening at Yale, where the president was recently forced to write a letter defending the school against charges that students seeking mental health help are expelled - but it’ll surely take more than a day to relieve the pressures burdening students today.