Millennial Mentality: Putting claims in context

As Mental Health Awareness Month begins, The Advocate takes a closer look at mental health on MSUM’s campus, addressing claims the millennial generation is more psychologically feeble than its predecessors. In this article, The Advocate asks what is true of millennials’ collective psyche and begs the question: Is it true the latest college demographic is more emotionally unstable than those previous?

by Josie Gereszek

Women’s and gender studies professor Emily Lind Johnston said she started noticing articles claiming today’s college students are different than their predecessors about two or three years ago. Recent articles on the topic are motivated by coverage of campus turmoil — the well-known efforts of student activists at Yale and the University of Missouri, for example. In both cases, students were protesting what they saw as the corrupt behavior of their administration, accusing university leaders of having turned blind eyes to the problems faced by marginalized students.

MSUM has seen comparable activist efforts. In December 2014, students representing campus organizations for marginalized groups gathered in the CMU in protest of the Mosaic Center, an aspect of the building’s ongoing renovation that would have consolidated those students’ safe spaces into one shared, public area in the student union’s basement. They stood silently on the CMU’s main staircases with tape covering their mouths, holding signs claiming they had been silenced in the renovation’s planning process.

A November article published in New York Magazine, titled “The Myth of the Ever-More-Fragile College Student,” explains it’s incidents like these that, to some, confirm college students are getting “increasingly fragile and prone to meltdowns.” The article lists headlines of pieces claiming students, increasingly emotional and skewed in their thinking, are more prone than ever to “latch on to petty issues and scream and cry until they get their way.”

Columns with headlines like “Yalies Whining for Protection, Not Fighting Adversity,” “College Is Not for Coddling,” and “Racial hysteria triumphs on campus” discuss what Fox News columnist Heather MacDonald calls a new “pathological narcissism” among millennial students. Another, by USA Today’s Glenn Reynolds, suggests we raise the voting age to 25. “This isn’t the behavior of people … capable of weighing opposing ideas, or of changing their minds when they are confronted with evidence that suggests that they are wrong,” Reynolds wrote of students at Yale and the University of Missouri.  A September article in Psychology Today titled “Crisis U” asserts that “colleges are being transformed into something more  akin to mental health wards than citadels of learning.”

Nothing new

Johnston, whose expertise includes feminist disability studies, said she thinks claiming such drastic generational differences is “kind of a red herring.”

“It’s a way of making it seem like what students are asking for and claiming is new, when actually, it’s not,” Johnston said, referring specifically to student demands for safe spaces and curricular changes like the use of trigger warnings.

In actuality, she said, students are intentionally drawing from the kinds of strategies and demands student activists were making in the ‘60s and ‘70s around the need for gender and ethnic studies on campus. Something that might be different is students drawing from the disability rights movement and “the rhetoric of accommodation,” she said, but the response has largely remained the same.

“When the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, you saw the same kind of language used to discredit the activist community,” Johnston said. “People with disabilities are now asking to be ‘coddled’ because there have to be elevators in buildings or you have to allow students with hearing impairments to go to regular, public schools … It’s the idea that people should just ‘toughen up.’”

It’s a liberal model of diversity in which people are treated like everyone’s already included, Johnston said, that hinders sight of the ways policies or practices tailored for marginalized groups actually benefit everyone.

Student demands

Johnston said she thinks the demands of students today, like trigger warnings and safe spaces, are reasonable. It’s simply a matter of accessibility, she said.

“Students are asking for another entry point to learning,” Johnston said. “A content warning, or notice, is just a heads up in a lot of ways. It’s about framing.”

Johnston said she thinks most of the commentary pieces (ones like a 2014 article from The New Yorker that discusses a student’s asking a professor of rape law to not use the word ‘violate’ because it could be triggering) “aren’t actually talking about” most students’ demands.

“I think the examples that circulate often (are) among people who are not educators and who are not students, so they don’t have any context for what it is they’re talking about,” Johnston said. “They just pass along these examples that are really extreme.”

Johnston said what students are asking for in demanding trigger warnings is just thoughtful preparation on the part of faculty, adding it’s something she thinks “good teachers do anyway,” talking to students and preparing them to learn with a purpose. When students know what’s coming and why they’re doing it, they learn better, she said.

“Sometimes, there’ll be students who say, ‘Look, I just can’t. I just am not in a position to do this reading. Is there some alternative work I could do?’ or ‘I just want to let you know I’m not going to be in class because I am not in a position with my healing that that is possible, and I want you to know I’ll be in class next week,’” Johnston said.

Those are decisions students wouldn’t be able to make without them knowing what’s coming, she said, adding that there’s a risk involved with not using trigger warnings in the classroom.

‘There’s one conversation about trigger warnings based in psychological research that if you reactivate someone’s trauma in the classroom and they’re caught by surprise by that happening, the student may feel trapped,” Johnston said. “They may not feel comfortable getting up and leaving.”

Students can’t focus on class if they’re experiencing flashbacks, she said. Similarly, if they’re experiencing anxiety, they may not even hear what’s happening around them, so “learning isn’t happening, but damage is also happening to students,” she added.

Tackling trauma

Carol Grimm is MSUM’s Director of Health and Wellness. She manages and administers Hendrix Health and the Wellness Center and agreed with Johnston in saying there are plenty of students on campus who have experienced trauma — enough to make sense of trigger warnings.

“I think people who are survivors or who are actively dealing with mental health issues know their own triggers, so you don’t even need to think about doing trigger warnings with them because they get it,” Grimm said. “What I see is, it’s the people who have not ever dealt with their stuff who are really going to react (negatively).”

Grimm said it’s in those situations that MSUM’s CARE Team often gets involved. The team, comprised of six faculty members including herself, is the group other faculty turn to when they see a student struggling with a traumatic experience, past or present. The group works to help students cope with personal crises and mental illness they may face while attending university.

Grimm said the CARE Team’s had a caseload of as many as 118 students at one time. She said the number of students the team works with has largely been stable, but ramped up when Hendrix gained a case manager. That change in staffing increased numbers because it allowed Hendrix to help more people in different ways, she said.

“Case management isn’t just about mental health,” Grimm said. “It’s like, you just got kicked out of your apartment and you don’t know where your dinner’s coming from.”

What has changed

Grimm said counseling in college has changed over the last decade or two. “A lot.”

“In the old days, 10 to 15 years ago, it was personal growth and development,” Grimm said. “Counseling centers were built around the philosophy that you came in because ‘I hate my roommate’ or ‘I’m homesick’ or whatever.” 

But, she said, as communities have shut down their mental health services, on-campus programs have had to adapt to see students who would otherwise be getting help elsewhere. Campus counseling services are acting in roles never anticipated by their staff 20 years ago.

Today, some students will have appointments at Hendrix five to 10 times a semester, Grimm said, scheduling whenever they need help most. They’re accommodated with a staff of varied positions — the health center employs a psychologist, addiction counselors, a clinical social worker and a physician who comes in to do medication management.

“That was kind of unheard of,” Grimm said. “But my philosophy is it’s about the student need, so if you get enough students who need the service, you’ve got to provide it.”

She said something else that’s impacted today’s on-campus counseling is a wider availability of prescription drugs.

“Fifteen years ago, if you were bipolar or schizophrenic, you didn’t think about going to college,” Grimm said. “You couldn’t do it. Now, you take medications. You can stabilize. You can go to college. It’s a totally different environment.”

Student populations at colleges and universities are getting more varied overall, she said.

The aforementioned New York Magazine article discusses how the sheer number of students going to college has skyrocketed over the decades. As that number gets larger, students on campus are increasingly diverse and more likely to have diagnoses. Those students bring with them new challenges for campus counseling centers often already struggling to adapt to their relatively new roles in communities. The article suggests the influx is making some on-campus professionals feel like things are getting worse, despite the lack of evidence to support that claim.

On that note, Grimm said numbers that do indicate millennials are more mentally ill tend to be misleading. People are being diagnosed more often today, she said, because there’s a higher level of awareness of mental illness and what that looks like. That awareness has also led to earlier intervention for students in high school and junior high, sometimes even as early as elementary school.

“The data say something like 24 percent of incoming freshman have seen a mental health provider,” Grimm said. “That’s a lot, but it really isn’t if there’s 25 percent of students who need help. Just because maybe we ignored it 25 years ago doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.”

Finding support

The Bailey Schumann is one student who had a diagnosis coming into MSUM. She was a third grader when she was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and today, she competes in the Miss America organization. Her experience with anxiety and self-harm has defined her platform, titled “Mind Your Health,” a campaign promoting increased understanding of mental illness. The speech language hearing sciences sophomore said losing her family’s nearby support when she came to college inspired her to start the peer support group she now runs on campus.

“I grew up being told I would eventually grow out of it,” Schumann said, “but that day hasn’t come yet … I didn’t realize until college that you always need that support group. You can’t ignore (mental illness). You can’t have an episode and continue with your day. You have to be always aware that you have this.” 

It was a hard transition from Carrington, North Dakota, to Moorhead for Schumann. At home, anxiety, what Schumann describes as feeling like “the world is ending,” was a shared experience. Everyone in her household except for her mom (who Schumann calls “the superhero of the family”) also has the diagnosis.

“It’s hard when Mom has all the answers, and suddenly Mom isn’t always around to help with the problems you might be experiencing.” Schumann said. “It’s almost like losing that support. You feel loss, and there’s nothing worse for a person who has anxiety than feeling unloved. You have to find people who are in the same shoes as you to help you because you can’t do it alone.”

Johnston said students often disclose to her their mental health struggles. They often feel as though they’re the only people who can’t handle those issues, she said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘Everyone has it worse, I know, and I’m the only one who can’t keep it together’ in the last year,” she said.

Schumann said as she got older and started high school, she stopped getting professional help because she didn’t want anyone to know about her problems. This continued into her freshman year of college, when she said her anxiety got worse. Hendrix Chemical Health Educator Miracle Hoff said that’s a common problem among students.

“(They’re) scared to reach out for help or don’t feel like they are ready for help yet,” Hoff said. “This results in students not getting the care they may need.”

She said it’s for that reason it’s hard to know the actual number of students who have mental health problems.

“Treatment Utilization on College Campuses: Who Seeks Help for What?,” a 2013 article published in the Journal of College Counseling, notes that 32 percent of college students show signs of mental illness. The article continues that 64 percent of these students don’t seek help.

Schumann said it wasn’t until October that she built up the courage to return to professional therapy. Certain there were others like her, she wanted to start a support group that was helpful, but casual.

Today, it’s usually six or seven women who attend the peer group’s Wednesday meetings regularly, every week. Schumann said although a man has yet to show up for a meeting, the group is not exclusive to women. She also said not everyone who attends has a diagnosis. Struggles peers have brought to the group include grieving a death in the family or the loss of a pet, unexplainable sadness and breakups.

“You either have a mental illness or you’re going through a point of a mental weakness,” Schumann said. “You may never be diagnosed in your life, but you may go through a traumatic experience, or you may feel these feelings.”

Hoff said for some, those “weak points” can turn into chronic mental health issues, which she said are more common in college students. She said she’s seen some students decide to leave school because of problems like anxiety.

“Some of this stems from relationship issues, things that have happened in the past and academic performance in school,” Hoff said. “We sometimes don’t see people until they’re in crisis mode because they let it go until it gets unbearable.”

Under pressure

It’s students Grimm describes as “perfectionists” who really tend to grapple with those problems, adding that the culture of higher education has shifted in a way that puts new expectations on millennial students. Not everyone needs to go to college, she said, but everyone believes they have to go to college.

“It’s like, you’ve got to get all A’s, you’ve got to have this fabulous career, and it’s not okay to just be okay anymore,” Grimm said. “As an outsider, I think the millennial generation’s harder on themselves. I don’t know why.”

Grimm said she often sees students maintain that “perfectionist” attitude, even in times of loss. There are just some things you’re supposed to be depressed and anxious about, she said, but students don’t always understand that.

“When there’s a death in the family, you’re supposed to be sad,” she said. “It’s okay to be sad. It’s not weakness to be sad or be depressed about it. It just is.”

Schumann’s group often gravitates toward the topic of unreasonable self expectations, she said.

“Our generation is under so much pressure,” Schumann said. “Some of the students here, if they don’t get into grad school, they can’t do what they want to do for the rest of their life. What if they can’t do that? Some people are dealing with money. College is so expensive. They want to be able to do what they want to do, but they can’t pay for it … When you get to college and you kind of grow up, all these different things kind of attack you.”

Grimm agreed students of today might be under more pressure than the generations before them. But they’re not more fragile, either, she said. It’s important to make that distinction. In every generation, there’s been a percentage of the population that could have been identified as fragile, she said.

“People also talk about the millennial generation’s not being resilient,” Grimm said, “and the thing you need to understand about resiliency is you learn that. You have to go through stuff to develop resilience.”

Logging on

She said something new she’s seen students have to overcome, too, is relationship turmoil in the world of texting and social media.

“When I was younger, Grimm said, “when you broke up with somebody, you just burned all their stuff and hung out with your girlfriends and talked smack about them.”

Today, she said, things are different. Now, students experience breakups that aren’t necessarily face-to-face, the insecurities that accompany online dating culture, social media users’ increased access to details of exes’ personal lives, and the ambiguity of texting.

Johnston said social media contributes to student anxiety and sadness in other ways, too.

“There’s been research that shows people who are active social media users, particularly young people, might have increased social anxiety because they compare themselves to other people,” Johnston said. “If they don’t have media literacy education, they aren’t sophisticated at theorizing what’s going on and recognizing that everyone’s curating their identities there.”

But social media’s increased opportunity for public discourse also makes it a valuable tool, she said.

“I think social media also allows us to say things and talk about issues to our networks that may not be as culturally acceptable to talk about in face-to-face conversations,” Johnston said. “Students are seeing more people they know saying things like, ‘I have serious depression and here’s what it’s like.”

Extra attention

Grimm said she thinks psychologists might be paying the millennial generation more attention just because social media has made today’s students easier to analyze. “It’s all out there,” she said.

Grimm said findings of an increase in pathology among students can also be attributed to confirmation bias.“You’re talking about some old curmudgeon psychologist who’s at the end of his career, saying, ‘Oh, everything just sucks right now,’” Grimm said. “There’s this whole discussion about how you read data. When you see something that says 25 percent of students surveyed feel this way, if your survey’s 400 students, that’s only 100 … Data can be manipulated sometimes to do what you want it to do. I think where a person’s philosophical bend is, is what the data’s going to show.”

Schumann attributes any rise in numbers of mental health diagnoses in part to initiatives like the peer support group that raise awareness of mental illness.

“Maybe the numbers aren’t different, but people are just now acknowledging it, so that’s why it seems like there’s so much of it,” Schumann said. “I look at it the same as autism spectrum disorders. We have the materials to diagnose, so that’s why we see the numbers.”

Schumann said she sees her peers comfortable with being open about their mental health. Some of the students who attend the support group also seek help from Hendrix counselors or MSUM’s Community Outreach Center, she said, adding some also visit other support groups in the area, depending on what they’re going through. There are some who have never gotten help before, and the support group has been their first experience in that kind of setting.

“I’ve brought up taping papers to the windows on the door so no one can see in or putting up a sign, and they’ve said no,” Schumann said. “They’re not embarrassed to be there.”

Grimm said more people being honest about their experiences could be part of how millennials have gained the reputation of being more emotionally feeble.

“They’re just coming into their own and trying to weave their way like the rest of us,” Grimm said. “They don’t see it as, nor should anybody, as any kind of a bad thing or a stigma thing that they’re being seen for a mental health issue. If you had asthma, you’d be treating that.”

*Hailey Gerlach contributed to this report.

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