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College Student Anxiety, Depression Levels Show Sharp Rise

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More students are working, and more are working longer hours

By Chris Levister –

Once upon a time University of California students spent four years at school, they were charged little or nothing for their education. They would attend class, participate in activities on campus, hang out with friends, go to parties and spend lots of time studying. Many lived in dorms, or at home with their families and most did not work. If they did, it was part-time and often on campus.

Nowadays more students are working, and more are working longer hours says longtime UC Riverside Professor of Psychology Dr. Carolyn B. Murray.

“Years ago students worked 10 hours a week to make extra spending money,” said Dr. Murray. “Today the typical college student lives off campus and pays rent. Many of them struggle with societal and family problems such as, racism, poverty, foreclosure, job loss, bankruptcy, substance abuse and divorce. Increasingly they are saddled with debt and forced to juggle a full course load and a full-time job.”

University administrators say over 60 percent of college students report that their parents now expect them to work during the school year to help cover expenses.

The toll says Dr. Murray is sometimes students can barely make it to class on time or turn in assignments on time. Professors are dealing with an increase in cheating, shoddy research, slipping GPA’s and a subject that isn’t often discussed: the mental health of college students.

“Mentally and physically I see more students suffering from depression and anxiety. The economy has only added to the stress.”

In fact a recent national survey of college psychologists conducted by the American College of Counseling Association (ACCA) showed that the number of students seeking help for emotional stress has significantly increased in recent years. Researchers indicate nearly one in every ten students is now utilizing campus therapists to deal with chronic anxiety.

The ACCA also found that 93% of therapists are seeing more students coming to college already on psychiatric medications. In recent years there has been an onslaught of anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications that have made their way into millions of medicine cabinets across the country and college students are no exception. Between 1994 and 2008 the number of college students on psychiatric medication rose from 9% to 26%.

Dr. Murray said students that load on the work during summer vacation also often find themselves focusing on simply meeting requirements getting through the workday and class material rather than focusing on doing a good job.

“Even if the students are silently walking to class, their mental stability is at risk and their stress barometer is pushing past extreme levels, screaming on the inside for a break,” explained Dr. Murray.

ACCA says 55 percent of those students working 35 or more hours per week report that work has a negative effect on their ability to focus. Forty percent report that work limits their class schedule; 36 percent report it reduces their class choices; 30 percent report it limits the number of classes they take; and 26 percent report it limits access to the library.

Students who work full-time are also more likely to drop out of school. For example, the available evidence is consistent with a roughly 10 percentage point differential in graduation rates between full-time and part-time workers. In 2008, nearly 910,000 full-time college students worked full-time. Because of the adverse effects of such full-time work, tens of thousands of these college students are likely to drop out of school and fail to receive a college degree.

Meet Taylor Booker. Six hundred miles from her home in Hercules, California the UCR junior has spent 90% of the summer on campus bulking up her resume and becoming more competitive in accessing graduate and medical schools.

On a recent morning Booker who plans on attending medical school is juggling a full load of summer classes and a job as an administrative assistant for the J.W. Vines Medical Society in Riverside.

“I took a week off to go home. Sure, I miss my family, but I need to stay on track and I need the job. My goal is to become a physician, so I have to make the sacrifice. Summer vacation isn’t a vacation anymore.”

This fall, undergraduate tuition for California residents will rise to $12,192, 18.3 percent higher than last year’s $10,302 - a level that prompted violent student protests. With a mandatory campus fee that averages $1,026, a year at UC now costs $13,218 before room and board.

That’s more than twice what it cost in 2005.

Some students think freshmen may have an even harder time graduating within four years. Deep budget cuts are forcing colleges to lay off instructors and eliminate core-entry level course offerings.

“With fewer available classes, I think more people will take 5 and even 6 years to graduate or want to drop out if tuition goes too high,” said Booker.

Going into her freshman year she attended UCR on financial aid, personal savings, and money from her mother, grandparents and other members of her family. That was before she was hit with back-to-back tuition increases coupled with spiraling living costs, health and wellness, administrative and activity fees.

“I never envisioned I would be paying over $13 thousand dollars a year in tuition plus room and board. Unfortunately to pay the higher tuition costs, I have to take out a loan. I don’t want to put more pressure on my family. So what choice do I have?”

The trick says Booker is to stay focused and have the right attitude.

“Instead of thinking about how much college is costing me or how tired I am after working 10-hour days I try to focus on the career waiting for me on the other side,” says Booker.

“When you want a thing deeply, earnestly and intensely, this feeling of desire reinforces your will and arouses in you the determination to work for what you want. The best motto for a long race is: Don’t grumble. Plug on!”

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