Is 18 years enough time to prepare for the stresses of being an adult? For America’s increasingly fragile college students—thousands of whom are returning to campus in the next two weeks—the answer is a panic-stricken no.
You may recall last year’s horror stories about easily traumatized students whose deteriorating mental health conditions were overburdening their universities’ counselors. This semester, to relieve some of the expected stress—on both the students and the campus’s mental health services—schools are getting creative. East Carolina University, for instance, will provide optional stress-management classes: or, as one news site described it, remedial education in how to be an adult.
Many students, it seems, are not prepared for the transition “from home life to college life and into their adulthood,” according to an ECU Board of Trustees briefing. The report continues:
“The resulting stress negatively impacts their ability to adjust to their new environment and puts them at risk of experiencing mental health issues, falling into substance abuse, and potentially experiencing academic failure.”
The report cites startling numbers that would appear to justify these concerns: In the 2015-16 academic year, counseling appointments increased 16 percent over the previous year at ECU; therapy cases increased 10 percent; and crisis appointments—situations characterized as mental health emergencies—increased by a whopping 53 percent. Requests for disability accommodations on tests also increased by 26 percent, even though the number of registered disabled students increased only slightly.
For ECU, the solution is “cognitive-affective stress management training,” which is a really fancy way of saying students need to learn to chill out instead of slipping into inconsolable depression whenever they get a B on a test, have a disagreement with a roommate, or encounter something in the curriculum that offends them.
A reporter for the Greenville, North Carolina, Daily Reflector who attended the Board of Trustees meeting described the program as “adulting” class. ECU wasn’t happy with that characterization of the plan. The news report “isn’t fully accurate,” ECU spokeswoman Jeannine Manning Hutson told The Daily Beast. “We don’t have an adulting program.”
Call it what you will—the university likes “resilience” education better—but the substance is the same: Too many university students seem to have missed out on vital conflict-resolution, de-stressing, and life-organizing techniques during their previous 12 years of schooling.
ECU is just one of many universities to struggle with, well, struggling students. Last year, Brown University’s student newspaper reported that the campus’s student protesters were suffering from panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and failing grades because of the toll their activism was taking on them. Students at Oberlin College told The New Yorker that they were considering dropping out—they were fed up with the college’s inability to make accommodations for them due to mental anguish.
Even those who criticize the idea of a national “resilience” shortage nevertheless concede that students are swamping their counselors. The Huffington Post reported “slow, but consistent growth” in the number of students who say they have depression and anxiety.
What’s going on here? Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free-Range Kids and a columnist for Reason.com, worries that helicopter parents and safety-obsessed K-12 administrators have babied an entire generation of young people so badly that by the time they get to college, they’re hopelessly dependent on guidance counselors and other authority figures.
“Today’s children grow up with their elders ever present to organize the game, settle the scores and slice the snacks,” writes Skenazy.
Skenazy thinks kids could use more unstructured play time, which would teach them to solve problems on their own and might make them a little tougher. But that won’t help the 18-year-olds who have already hit adulthood and just aren’t up to the challenge.
And that’s a problem. Make no mistake: Emotionally coddled, easily offended, mentally traumatized students aren’t just a danger to themselves—they are exerting an injurious influence on the overall campus climate. They are the ones calling for what psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes as “vindictive protectiveness,” or institutional policies designed to protect students from psychological harm.
These policies are well-known to readers: trigger warnings that require professors to consider whether they are teaching objectionable material; safe spaces that appear on campus whenever a visiting speaker expresses a controversial idea; speech codes that thwart students’ efforts to exercise their First Amendment rights; and “Bias Response Teams” that investigate members of campus for saying the wrong things, even inadvertently.
Whether these preventative measures are in the best interest of psychologically fraught students is a matter for debate (some experts think they make it possible for troubled students to avoid learning how to overcome their problems). But they are undoubtedly bad for everyone else—they erode free expression for students and undermine academic freedom for professors.
The policies of vindictive protectiveness are making it more difficult for students to learn while simultaneously making it impossible for professors to teach. The classroom is not always supposed to be a comfortable environment—indeed, it is desirable for professors to challenge wrongheaded students, and vice versa—but uncomfortable moments are now grounds for formal investigations. Just ask professors like Laura Kipnis, Teresa Buchanan, and Andrea Quennette, who faced witch hunts over clearly protected speech.
It’s a problem that reminds Haidt of a quotation from Marcel Proust’s early-20th century novel Remembrance of Things Past: “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”
As far as resilience classes go, “they probably won’t hurt,” Haidt told The Daily Beast. But universities like ECU could make their campus a healthier place for all students if they just stopped coddling them.
“I think ECU would do better to examine whether its own overprotective policies, speech restrictions, and in loco parentis attitude are continuing the deprivation of discovery for another four years,” he said.