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Student anxiety on college campuses ‘a national epidemic,’ UC researcher says

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Volunteers and their therapy dogs from Sacramento SPCA were on hand to help out Sac State students stressed out about finishing up class papers and projects and studying for upcoming final exams – or simply missing their family pets. Students, who

Today’s college students are growing more anxious, unraveled by financial uncertainty and consumed by the digital devices that hold increasingly important sway in their lives, early results of a new UC Berkeley study show

Researchers are sounding the alarm.

University of California, Berkeley, professor Richard M. Scheffler of the university’s Goldman School of Public Policy calls it “the new epidemic,” the title of his team’s examination of college students’ well-being: “Anxiety Disorder on College Campuses: The New Epidemic.”

The study analyzes data from 2008-16. The findings are preliminary, Scheffler stressed, designed to increase public awareness of the issue. A more detailed report with its call to action will be released in early summer, the Berkeley researcher said, that looks more specifically at the causes and consequences of students’ anxiety.

The implications are far reaching, from the billions of dollars spent treating young adults with the disorder – the study pegged treatment costs in 2015 at $3 billion, three times the money spent in 2008 – to dramatic increases in emergency room visits to the effects on college students’ future earning power.

Scheffler and an eight-member team crunched the numbers, threshing nine years of national data on students’ well-being and talking with UC Berkeley students about their experiences with anxiety and what they believed drove those feelings.

The early results are sobering, drawing a picture of a college student more likely to visit the ER for anxiety-related causes, more costly to treat and less likely to earn as much as their counterparts without an anxiety disorder.

The study shows: Students ages 18-26 are seeking help at dramatically greater rates. The percentage of students ages 18-26 who said they had been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety disorder in the last 12 months doubled, from 10 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2016.

More than 15 percent of students in the UC system also reported anxiety disorder in 2016, the final year of the study.

Scheffler said he was surprised by the initial findings during a brief telephone interview this week with The Sacramento Bee. “When I saw that those rates doubled, that shocked me. I didn’t expect that,” he said.

But students’ anxiety and their general wellness have been issues for some time on college campuses.

In 2017, data gathered by campuses as part of the National College Health Assessment showed that 1 in 5 students struggled with sleep. At Davis, it was 1 in 4. One remedy: on-campus hammocks sponsored by a California Endowment grant to encourage power naps and constructive relaxation on the Davis campus that could pay dividends in the classroom.

At Sacramento State, the university in recent years has opened a permanent food pantry and created an emergency housing program and emergency fund for students who are struggling financially.

Campus anxiety is felt across the spectrum of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual identification, family’s education and income – students from families who struggled to pay their bills were nearly three times more likely to suffer anxiety disorder than their better-off counterparts, the study showed.

Whatever the factors, the college years can be rife with stressors and uncertainty, said Ron Lutz, director of counseling services at Sacramento State.

“A lot of it – when you distill it down – is how you’re going to manage situations of life – the basic needs of food and shelter or student loans,” Lutz said. “A lot of students are uncertain about their future – it’s hard for them to envision a bright future for themselves. Those 18 to 26-year-olds are especially vulnerable because they haven’t been through a lot of life experiences.”

Lutz says that means counselors and others need to develop new or different ways to treat anxiety issues before they become problems.

“What can we do proactively before that anxiety becomes a mental health crisis?” he said. “That means getting outside of our traditional views of treating anxiety and get out ahead in ways to prevent it.”

The march to Graduation Day further fuels that anxiety. A senior, for instance, is 65 percent more likely to report being treated for or diagnosed with anxiety disorder than a freshman, the study reads.

Another set of data caught Scheffler’s attention: the sharp rise in rates of anxiety disorder among black, Hispanic and Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander and transgender students. Transgender students’ reports increased by nearly two-thirds between 2008 and 2016. The increase in anxiety rates for Hispanic or Latino students was 150 percent, as was the increase for Asian and Pacific Islanders. The rate was even higher for black students, at 180 percent.

The data appear to show college students’ age-old anxieties surrounding academics, money and time, and the drive to achieve, succeed and graduate, are ever more more amplified in the digital age.

“This is a national epidemic on college campuses. That’s the most astonishing thing I found,” Scheffler said. “It’s not just a Berkeley problem, it’s not just a UC problem, it’s a national problem.”

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