The Myth of the Ever-More-Fragile College Student

Young man sitting next to laptop, holding head in hands
Photo: Matthieu Spohn

Over the last two weeks, the news has been dominated by coverage of two very different instances of campus turmoil at Yale and the University of Missouri. In both cases, students are protesting over what they see as administrations that turn a blind eye to the problems faced by marginalized students on their campuses. Some of the students involved have gotten upset or confrontational, leading to dramatic YouTube videos that are hard to watch.

For many observers, these incidents only proved what they already knew: College students are getting increasingly fragile and prone to meltdowns. Too emotional and skewed in their thinking, they latch on to petty issues and scream and cry until they get their way. “Yalies Whining for Protection, Not Fighting Adversity” was a Hartford Courant columnist’s headline. “College Is Not for Coddling,” scolded the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus. In a piece that was picked up by Fox News, the Manhattan Institute’s Heather McDonald decried the “pathological narcissism” of college students today. “This isn’t the behavior of people who are capable of weighing opposing ideas, or of changing their minds when they are confronted with evidence that suggests that they are wrong,” USA Today’s Glenn Reynolds wrote of students on both campuses.

These ideas didn’t come out of nowhere — for a while now, think pieces have been fretting over the increased fragility of American college students, and blaming it on … well, whatever the writer thinks is wrong with kids and/or society today. This past September, in particular, was a big month for this idea, with two lengthy feature stories calling attention to the trend and making arguments about what it means for society. In The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt, a groundbreaking researcher of moral psychology who has in recent years taken a keen interest in the culture wars and what he views as a lack of ideological diversity on campus, and Greg Lukianoff, a constitutional lawyer and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote with alarm about “the new protectiveness” endemic to modern-day college campuses. Students on these campuses, they explain, “spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors …” Borrowing scraps of evidence from the tenets of cognitive-behavioral therapy, they argue that this new protectiveness “may be teaching students to think pathologically.” That is, all that sensitivity and “coddling” — “trigger warnings” are mentioned 19 times in the piece — may actually be making them mentally ill.

The Psychology Today story, authored by the magazine’s editor-at-large Hara Estroff Marano and entitled “Crisis U,” sounded the alarm that “Step by well-meaning step, colleges are being transformed into something more akin to mental health wards than citadels of learning.” The problem, she writes, is that kids these days just topple way too easily: “Angst has long afflicted those of college age; but once it had an intellectual, existential cast. Now it is primarily emotional. By some psychic sleight, common life dilemmas have become mental disorders.” Marano blames this on a plethora of issues, from the heightened academic pressure of 21st-century life to hookup culture to social media to the prevalence of binge-drinking on campus.

Taken together, the two articles painted a similarly dark picture of a nation of college students shuffling around like shell-shocked zombies, occasionally lashing out at their elders for no reason, but also poised to collapse emotionally at the slightest provocation: a B- on an exam, for example, or a rude remark from a professor (or a tone-deaf email from an administrator, or a poop swastika …).

It’s no wonder these stories resonated — particularly Haidt and Lukianoff’s essay, which has more than half a million shares on Facebook (the preferred social network of parents of millennial-age kids everywhere) and 25,000 on Twitter, and which has been cited frequently in recent days: In much the same way the YouTube videos fit into the narrative set forth by these articles, the articles themselves fit effortlessly onto a social-panic trail that had already been blazed by story after story of millennials being coddled, suffering the ravages of helicopter-parenting, being self-obsessed, being unable to function like normal employees in the workplace, sleeping around endlessly and pointlessly, and so on. Of course kids are getting more fragile, and of course it’s hurting them. Just look at all those overly sensitive tweets! The calls for trigger warnings! The overwrought YouTube videos! It’s true because it’s obviously true, because the evidence is right in front of our faces.

Except when you actually unpack these claims — when you put them in context and look for real evidence that kids are getting more fragile — there’s a lot less here than meets the eye. The true story of college students and mental health has to do with a hollowing out of the United States’ mental-health services, with overtaxed counseling centers, with a fundamental shift in the role that colleges serve, with changes in the composition of the nation’s student body. This is all very, very complicated, and none of it can be fairly summarized as “Kids these days are getting so fragile!”


It’s probably important to clarify exactly what’s being claimed here. What all the worriers agree on is that kids today are different, in important, meaningful, and tragic ways, from their forebears. Different worriers will offer different examples to support this hypothesis — some focus on students embracing trigger warnings or identity politics, others on stories of students melting down over bad grades, others on other stuff — but what they all have in common is the belief that American kids of a certain age are just less stable today than they were in the past.

What’s important about this argument is it moves past hard-to-quantify culture-war issues — the debate over p.c. culture, or social media, or “hookup culture” — and shifts things into the more solid, alarming realm of kids’ very well-being. The debate over trigger warnings or how much casual sex is too much for a 20-year-old, for example, is a fuzzy, hard-to-pin-down one, relying a lot on closely held values that aren’t really conducive to any sort of empirical analysis. People end up yelling at each other a lot. You can’t respond to the claim “Trigger warnings run contrary to the academic spirit of free inquiry” with research, because the words academic and spirit and free inquiry all mean different things to different people.

But the Haidts and Lukianoffs and Maranos of the world are upping the ante. These aren’t mere culture-war issues, they insist — college students’ mental health, their very lives in some cases, are at stake. And they have every right to make this argument. But if they’re going to, they need to play by the rules they themselves have set out and proffer actual, substantive evidence that kids are getting sicker, that, over time, otherwise-similar groups of kids are showing increasing amounts of anxiety or depression or suicidality (or other symptoms) that can’t be explained by other factors. This, it turns out, is hard to do, because such evidence doesn’t really exist.

Let’s start with the articles in question. Haidt and Lukianoff provide a great deal of anecdotal evidence about crazy, maddening happenings on college campuses (who can argue that it isn’t crazy for students to ask a professor of rape law not to use the term violate, since it’s triggering?), as well as a very circumstantial argument drawn from CBT principles about how trigger warnings and other forms of “coddling” could be making students mentally ill (though they don’t quote or reference any experts on CBT or trauma who say that they believe this is likely).

What they don’t offer is any solid longitudinal evidence that kids are getting more mentally ill. They do throw out a few numbers, though (emphasis mine):

We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some portion of the trend is real. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them. The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good.

They may not “mean to imply simple causation,” but the whole point of their cover story is to suggest that trigger warnings and their ilk could be making kids sicker. And yet neither of their citations constitutes actual evidence of any trend of this sort. When you look at recent results of the ACCA report, it quickly becomes apparent that counselors always think things are getting worse. Going back to 2004 — all the surveys available on the ACCA website (I reached out to get earlier ones but didn’t hear back) — the lowest percentage of counselors who thought things were getting worse was 85.8 percent, in 2004. The second-lowest? 87.9 percent, in 2012. The numbers bounce around a bit, but are always high. Counseling directors take a pessimistic view of these things, perhaps because a steady stream of anxious and depressed students are lining up outside their doors daily. (This is actually an important part of the broader story, and more on it in a bit.)

As for the rise by five percentage points in students who said they feel “overwhelming anxiety,” taking two data points separated by five years doesn’t tell us much. For one thing, 2009 to 2014 was a period during which the full brunt of the recession hit, affecting many college students and their families. Could that account for a big chunk of the point increase in kids who felt anxious? Maybe. Or maybe it was something else, or maybe there was a small, short-term increase for no particular reason, which is what happens in statistics sometimes. There’s no way to know just from this tiny snippet of the data. It’s thin, thin evidence.

As for Marano’s piece, she offers up a lot of isolated statistics and anecdotes, but, like Haidt and Lukianoff, only two statistics of a longitudinal nature. According to the 2014 Center for College Mental Health report, she writes, “24 percent of students purposely injure themselves without the intent to kill themselves. The number is slowly increasing, up from 21 percent in 2008.” What she means is that 24 percent of students who show up at counseling centers exhibit these symptoms, since that’s what this survey measures (when she introduces the CCMH reports earlier in the piece, she is clear about this distinction). Setting aside the fact that this is a small increase to draw any meaningful conclusions from, there are two problems here. One is that since it’s a study only of kids who show up at counseling centers, not the overall population, it’s hard to know what to make of it. Even a slight increase in the percentage of self-injurious students who chose to seek out counseling, perhaps as a result of the laudable increase in mental-health awareness on many campuses, might account for this uptick. That wouldn’t mean more kids are self-injuring, just that the ones who are are getting help.

Perhaps more important, if you look at page 20 of the report in question, where there are graphs displaying how responses to various items on the survey have changed over time, you’ll see that she picked the only one with a clear upward trend over the course of the survey’s history (some caution is needed in interpreting these graphs — “The transition between the blue bar and the orange bar for all but the first two graphs represented an answer-format change,” explained Ben Locke, the counseling expert at Penn State who runs the study, meaning apples-to-apples comparisons over the years aren’t always straightforward). Marano’s only other longitudinal evidence is the aforementioned college-counselor survey — the overlap with the Atlantic article isn’t surprising, since she said in an email that she pointed Haidt toward statistics for his story.

To be fair — and Haidt pointed this out in an email — it is hard to get good, consistent data on college students’ mental health. It just isn’t something that has been measured rigorously for a very long time. But according to Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, which promotes mental-health and anti-suicide efforts among university populations, the evidence we have simply doesn’t suggest that college students are getting more fragile. “There’s been a lot of that narrative, and actually very, very little evidence to support it,” he said. Schwartz hasn’t been thrilled about some of the recent coverage. “I was actually pretty perturbed about the Psychology Today piece, to tell you the truth, because I actually spent two hours talking to Hara Marano about the state of college health,” he said. “And you’ll notice the things I said weren’t mentioned.”

That’s probably because Schwartz’s account of what’s going on is rather nuanced. While anecdotal accounts of ever-more-mentally-ill students abound, he said that “If you look at things that are a bit more carefully, rigorously tracked, like rates of suicide, actually, when rates of suicide were measured in the Big 10 study of colleges” — which looked at university suicides from 1980 to 1990 — “as compared to two surveys that were done in the 2000s that go up to 2009, the rate seems to have gone down slightly.”

In recent years, Schwartz explained, the data have gotten better — the American College Health Association, for example, conducts solid biannual surveys of students asking them about physical- and mental-health issues, and that’s some of the data mentioned by the authors of the Atlantic and Psychology Today articles. But digging into the numbers doesn’t lend support to the increasing-pathology thesis, either. “There are some questions that you’d think would be pretty [objective],” he said. “Look at the reports of rates of serious thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. They actually haven’t changed very much over the last 15 years.” Yes, responses to items about feeling overwhelming anxiety and depression in the last 12 months have gone up in recent years, but again, it’s a giant leap from that to “kids are getting more fragile.” For one thing, as Schwartz pointed out, things are getting more stressful in many real ways. “I think both of those articles missed the fact that there are real stresses,” said Schwartz. “The world feels like a really anxious place for young people in many important ways. I think there’s incredible uncertainty about their economic and job prospects in five and ten and 20 years, and if you listen to the news it’s hard not to be somewhat anxious.”

Schwartz also said that the simple story line being promulgated leaves out some vital context having to do with campus counseling centers. “It’s important to understand that probably before 2000 or the mid-1990s or so, colleges really were not thinking of themselves as health-care and mental-health-care providers very much,” he said. Rather, they were focused on what were at the time traditional counseling services, like career counseling. But in the last couple decades, counseling centers have found themselves increasingly — and unfamiliarly — taking on the roles of frontline mental-health service providers.

What caused this shift? For one thing, the American mental-health-care system, which is currently something of a disaster, took a major beating during that span. “Access to services really just diminished in many areas of the country through the 1990s and 2000s, and schools were faced with picking up the slack,” said Schwartz. He thinks this can account for part of the perception that kids are getting sicker. “One of the things that has been argued is that counseling services are seeing more severely disturbed students because of the weakening of mental-health-care access in local communities around the colleges,” he explained. In other words, kids aren’t getting sicker, overall, but more of the kids who are sick lack other treatment options and are seeking out services via their universities. “So it looks like there are more and more sicker students, but the metrics aren’t necessarily there to support [that being the case],” said Schwartz.

This is an easy thing to seize on for those looking to make arguments about fragility. Three paragraphs into her Psychology Today piece, for example, Marano quotes the head of a college counseling center explaining that he’s seen kids show up at his office with increasingly serious problems over the course of his four-decade career. But she makes no reference to the profound shift in counseling centers’ roles that has occurred over this period.

Locke, the counseling specialist at Penn State University who runs the CCMH annual survey of counseling-center data, explained that even among kids who do have access to services in high school, the transition to college can bring hiccups that exacerbate things. In the best-case-scenario situations, high schools offer good opportunities for kids with serious behavioral or psychological issues to get treatment — after all, they’re effectively under the surveillance of teachers and administrators for hours of every day, and in well-run schools these teachers and administrators can quickly notice something’s wrong and step in to help the students get help. College doesn’t work that way. You can stay in your room all day; you can drift from class to class without getting the help you need. So it’s not only the kids who lacked good mental-health services back home who end up straining counseling centers — it’s also the kids who had access to services in high school, but then arrived at college to find much less of a safety net. Sometimes, they show up at counseling centers in the midst of crises, further buttressing the notion that a broad degradation of students’ mental health is underway.

Locke, like Schwartz, had spoken to Marano for her article and wasn’t enthusiastic about the experience. “She had an axe to grind when she went into writing the article — it was very apparent, when I spoke to her on the phone,” he said. He was somewhat more sympathetic to arguments about kids growing less resilient, as he put it, than Schwartz was, but he also thought the narratives being offered are much too simplistic. “The drop in resilience probably has as much to do with the wide range of students in college today than it does with resilience dropping across the board,” he said in an email. He pointed out that the sheer number of kids going to college has skyrocketed over the decades, and that as this group gets bigger and increasingly diverse (and, in some cases, more troubled), they bring with them novel challenges for counseling centers that are already struggling to adapt to their new roles. On top of all of this is the budget issue: In 2013, U.S. News & World Report noted that “Many states have twice the recommended number of students to counselors,” and in some of those states, budgets have actually been cut despite the increase in demand. As one study that I’ll return to shortly puts it, “an increasing demand for counseling center services in the context of shrinking or unchanging service resources may have influenced professional perceptions” that things are getting worse.

The point, overall, is that given the dizzying array of possible factors at work here, it’s much too pat a story to say that kids are getting more “fragile” as a result of some cultural bugaboo. “I think it’s not only an oversimplification, I think it’s unfair to the kids, many of whom are very hardworking and tremendously diligent, and working in systems that are often very competitive,” said Schwartz. “Many of the kids are doing extraordinarily well, and I think it’s unfair to portray this whole group of people as being somehow weakhearted or weak-minded in some sense, when there’s no evidence to really support it.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed among those who study college mental health that there’s an interesting divide at work here: College counselors are so convinced kids’ mental health is getting worse that it’s become dogma in some quarters, and yet it’s been tricky to find any solid, rigorous evidence of this. Some researchers have tried to dig into counseling-center data in an attempt to explain this discrepancy. One recent effort, published in the October issue of the Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, comes from Allan J. Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester who has devoted a chunk of his career to studying college suicide. Schwartz examined data from “4,755 clients spanning a 15-year period from 1992-2007” at one university, poring over the records to determine whether students who came in contact with that school’s counseling services had, over that period, exhibited increasing levels of distress in the form of suicidality, anxiety and phobic disorders, overall signs of serious mental illness, and other measures. (The same caveat I mentioned above applies here — such a study can only tell us about rates of pathology among kids who go to counseling centers. But it can at least help determine whether counselors are right that among the kids they see every day, things are getting worse.) 

Schwartz found no evidence to support the pessimistic view. With the exception of suicidality, where he noted a “significant decline” over the years, every other measure he looked at held stable over the study’s 15-year span. In his paper, Schwartz rightly notes that there are limitations to what we can extrapolate from a study of a single campus. But he goes on to explain that four other, similar studies, published between 1996 and 2007, also sought to track changes in pathology over time in single-university settings, and they too found no empirical evidence that things have been getting worse. This doesn’t definitively prove that kids who seek counseling aren’t getting sicker, of course. But statistically, Schwartz argues, it’s unlikely that five studies looking at different schools would all come up with null findings if, in fact, there was a widespread increase in student pathology overall.

At the end of his article, Schwartz offers some informed speculation about what accounts for this divide. Some of it lines up with what Victor Schwartz and Locke said about the changing roles of counseling services. But Schwartz also examines the question sociologically, suggesting that as the “consensus of increasing pathology was emerging,” influential researchers embraced it, publishing papers that helped confirm and spread this notion within the field. Over the last two decades or so, in other words, it became established as something of a fact among counseling-center clinicians, in other words, that student pathology was increasing. They saw this increase with their own eyes every day — they thought they did, at least — and there appeared to be little reason to question the notion. This pessimistic view burrowed its way deeply into their craft, and then outward into adjacent areas of research, ready for the plucking by those with a soapbox and a scary story to tell. 


I don’t think Marano or Haidt or Lukianoff set out specifically to ridicule students or stoke a moral panic. I do think that all of them have political agendas, and that these agendas shaped the way they interpreted the available evidence (which puts them in a club with about 7 billion other people). Either way, what’s striking, again, is the manner in which their accounts all seem to come down to culture, to the idea that parents or kids or administrators are doing — or being pressured to do — something wrong and maladaptive and harmful, and that this can explain all or most of the ostensible rise in student fragility.

Absent almost completely from these accounts is any reference to the epochal ways higher ed has changed in the recent decades, to the fact that more and more diverse students are matriculating than ever before, to the fact that counseling services are acting in roles that were never anticipated, to the fact that the sort of economic insecurity many students face today appears to be a powerful predictor of psychological turmoil, to the crumbling of the nation’s broader mental-health infrastructure, to the fact that pessimistic college counselors — quoted heavily in the Psychology Today piece — might not always have the bird’s-eye view of the situation required to accurately identify trends.

What separates present-day moral panics about college students from past ones is that we live in a golden age for confirmation bias. We have greater, more intimate access to scenes from campus life than ever before, which makes it easier than ever before to slip into the trap of “I’m sure this thing is happening because I see evidence it’s happening.” But prior to YouTube and Twitter and the morass of think pieces choking the internet anew every morning, there were also campus-politics freak-outs, there were also nervous breakdowns in counseling centers, there were also tragedies involving students and their mental health — and there were also adults proffering cultural theories for why everything was falling apart.