By Lynn O’ Shaughnessy
February 6, 2015
Every year for half a century UCLA has surveyed freshman classes at schools across the country to get a reading on their mental health. The latest findings aren't encouraging: The emotional health of 2014's crop of college freshmen is at an all-time low.
Nearly one in 10 students in UCLA's 2014 study said they frequently felt depressed, and their assessment of their overall emotional health is at the lowest level since UCLA started asking the question.
UCLA surveyed more than 153,000 first-time freshmen who entered 227 four-year private and public colleges and universities of different types and selectivity.
When students were asked to rate their mental health compared to their peers, they gave themselves a score of roughly 50 percent, which is an all-time low. Previous UCLA surveys have highlighted students' declining mental health over time and its connection to lower student success. This phenomenon can certainly explain a growing reliance on campus mental health facilities.
According to a different study by the American College Health Association, more than half of colleges student have said they experienced "overwhelming anxiety" in the past year. Depressed students were also more likely to express boredom with their classes and be less likely to study with their classmates.
While students reported higher rates of depression in the UCLA study, another worrisome sign is the reduced amount of time they're spending with friends, which also hit an all-time low for the annual survey.
Back in the late 1980s, roughly 38 percent of students reported that they spent more than 16 hours a week as high school seniors hanging out with friends, while just 18 percent spent five hours or less. Remarkably, those numbers have now flipped. Only 18 percent of today's freshmen said they spent more than 16 hours with friends, while 39 percent spent five hours or less socializing.
Much more of their interaction now occurs on Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR) and other social media sites.
The UCLA study also indicates that many students understand that they need help with interpersonal skills. Only half of the freshmen surveyed said their interpersonal skills were a major strength or somewhat strong, another all-time low. This result pales in comparison with how highly the students rated their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
While it's clear that colleges students still drink significantly, students are arriving on campus with much less experience consuming alcohol than their peers from 20 and 30 years ago. In fact, in the current UCLA study, freshmen reported the lowest rate of alcohol and cigarette use in high school than at any point in over 30 years.
Unfortunately, students quickly discover alcohol when they reach college -- when 40 percent of them say they've participated in binge drinking within the past month, according to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Students' affiliation with religion has also hit an historic low as more freshmen don't identify with any religion. In 2014, 27.5 percent of freshmen said they didn't have a religion, an increase of nearly three percentage points from just the year before. At the same time, students' self-reported spirituality has also declined.