Combating college student burnout

Higher Education
by Anthony Bradley

Posted on Friday, October 23, 2015, at 3:09 pm

American society has managed to fail an entire generation of students by micromanaging their lives and not letting them experience failure. The result is that college students, on average, are the most anxiety-ridden generation of young adults in recorded history. College students who come from Christian homes do not fare any better. The pressure to achieve greatness is the universal burden of high school and college students, Christian or not.

An article in the October 2015 of issue of Psychology Today summarizes much of the problem. Nationally, 22 percent of collegians now seek therapy or counseling each year, a figure that has grown consistently for the past 20 years. Students arrive at college “psychically burned out from building portfolios of excellence, primed to crumble at the first significant disappointment they encounter,” the article notes. “Having had—or been allowed to have—few disappointments in their overparented, overtrophied lives, many have not learned to handle difficulty. In the absence of skills to dispel disappointment, difficulty becomes catastrophe.”

College students do not know how to handle failure. They do not know how to initiate relationships, resolve interpersonal conflict, or deal with romantic relationship terminations. Students constantly compare their lives with the lives their peers post on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and these comparisons lead students to feel as though they do not measure up and are in some respects inadequate—even though the lives projected on social media are manufactured to present life as romantically successful. Alcohol, drugs, and “hooking up” are means to numb their anxiety and cope with the stresses of pursuing success, according to several studies.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford University, blames the students’ lack of skills to cope with life on their baby-boomer and Gen-X parents, who have micromanaged the lives of their children. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Lythcott-Haims observes that parents who protect their children from disappointment, failure, and pain are undermining their children’s ability to function as adults: “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”

While I don’t think there is a single, silver-bullet solution, it’s clear that something must change. Today’s college students need to be empowered to manage their adulthood well. As a starting point, parents, educators, religious leaders, and psychologists must come together to completely conceptualize raising children so that the goal is not individual professional success, changing the world for God, or living a life free from suffering. Instead, we want young adults who are free to truly flourish as God intended for those who bear His image and likeness and thus be able to fulfill what God intends for them.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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