Most mental disorders occur between the ages of 15 and 25,1 and these ages, which cover typical university years, can also see the beginning of lifelong mental disorders.2 Early treatment has the potential to significantly improve long-term prognoses.3 Therefore, reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors are important for the mental health of youngsters at this age.
The focus of this article is universities. Research shows that university students have more mental health symptoms compared with others in their age group,4 and indicates the prevalence and severity of major mental health difficulties among university students.5 Undoubtedly, university life provides important opportunities for emotional development. However, in some cases, obstacles and excessive stress can lead to psychological problems and negative consequences, such as difficulties in academic life. During university years, young adults are going through an important developmental and experiential phase. Therefore, the transition to university attracts increasing attention from many researchers and studies.
A critical life period: transition to university
The transition to university is a critical period that brings many changes.6 During this period, youngsters try to cope with the challenges of the developmental period they are in, as well as with university life. On one hand, they try to create a new social environment for themselves; and on the other hand, they strive to reach a balance between academic and personal life. Students can struggle in many areas, including economic, academic, social, cultural and emotional, while trying to adapt to these changes and to achieve a new balance.4,7,8 Negative experiences in this process can lead to mental problems and risky behaviours, such as alcohol and substance use.9,10
‘Today’s university students have more problems than previous generations’. Reality or myth?
Are the problems of today’s university students more serious than previous generations? Are they experiencing more severe mental problems? Or is this perception a myth? In the literature, different researchers have reached different conclusions.
The answers of administrators and practitioners of counselling centres to these questions have suggested that the severity of student problems has increased.11,12 In contrast, research based on client testimonies has indicated that there has been no change in the severity of problems.13,14 Perhaps it would be better to focus on changes in kinds of problems, rather than their severity. Change over time is inevitable and it is natural that each generation experiences problems in different ways from previous groups. So it may be more helpful to explore this issue in terms other than the seriousness of problems. In other words, it could be more appropriate to understand the problems of each generation according to the characteristics of their own period. Jean Twenge, author of Generation me, states that: ‘The character of a human is shaped according to the era of birth rather than the family in which he/she was born and raised.’15 Undoubtedly, era is very important in understanding problems, but the peculiar characteristics of the years in that era (economic, psychosocial and so on) should be considered as well.
Next in this issue
Even in a short period of five years, problems may change. The findings of two studies which I conducted, examining the problems of students who applied to a counselling centre of a certain university (the first covering 11 years16 and the second covering 16 years,17 including the five years after the first study) are different. The findings of the first study showed that the severity of mental health problems increased during 2006–2008, whereas the highest increase in student problems emerged in relationship problems between 2009–2013. The difference between the research findings is explained by the time difference between the studies; psychosocial, economic and related changes of these periods may also have impacted on the nature of problems expressed.
Looking at problems from a wide perspective
In order to understand students’ problems, we need to consider the characteristics of Generation Y and Z through the theory of generations. (Definitions of Y and Z generations, to which most current university students belong, are given below.) However, as highlighted above, it is not possible to understand a generation only according to the age range to which it belongs. Looking at the background and social change in those years provides a more robust approach for identifying problems. The most important psychosocial difference today is technological development. Dependence on technology can cause youngsters to have communication and relationship problems.17
Theory of generations: generations y and z
The theory of generations, each consisting of periods of 20–22 years, is a structure that explains the general behavioural patterns and personality profiles of a given period.18,19 Although there is no consensus on age range considered in the classification of generations, the chronological order of generations is as follows: the Traditional Generation (1925–1945); Baby Boomers (1946–1964), Generation X (1965–1979), Generation Y (1980–1994) and Generation Z (1995–2012). Given the age-range differences in the definition of generations, the majority of university cohorts in recent years would be composed of Generations Y and Z. Therefore, briefly exploring the characteristics of Generation Y and then Generation Z will provide a rich perspective in understanding student problems.
Generation y Technology defines many elements in the life of Generation Y and is one of the issues where Generation Y is more skilled than the preceding Generation X. Two-thirds of Generation Y, the first generation to develop in a digital world, were introduced to computers before the age of five, and unlike their parents, grew up in a consumer society.20 The speed generated by technology can lead them to think fast, move fast and to consume fast. Thanks to technology, they can reach their friends, families, information and entertainment at any time of the day. Besides being accustomed to being the centre of attention, it was reported that Generation Y members, who keep their expectations high, cannot define their goals clearly.21 Generation Y members believe that they can achieve everything and that they are transformative.20
Dr Twenge’s book has the following blurb on its cover: ‘Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever before’.15 Twenge argues that a narcissistic transformation has occurred among today’s youth, and that we are faced with a selfish, anxious, angry, hateful, hedonistic young generation. The author emphasises that, as a result of being raised to believe statements such as ‘You are always the best’, and ‘You can achieve anything if you want’, this generation forgets that humans are fallible and that mistakes and defects are an inevitable part of life. Moreover, Twenge contends that when members of this generation do not get what they want, they experience psychological and physiological problems and they see themselves as worthless and become prone to suicidal thoughts.22
In general, the generation of those born after 2000 is known as Generation Z. Being the first generation of the 21st century, this generation has become intertwined with technology. Therefore, the members of this generation are also called I-Gen15 and Instant Online.23 Very differently from earlier generations, this generation was born in an environment where mobile phones were available. They have experienced new technological and communication and transportation opportunities. They are also defined as the generation that will experience extreme individualisation and loneliness because of being able to establish relationships only through internet networks.19 In a study, it was reported that since 2011, the rates of anxiety, depression and suicide have exploded among youngsters, a period which coincides with the spread of smartphones across the US.15
It has been reported that, for this generation, driving, working, leaving home without a parent, or running away from home are almost nonexistent.15 They tend to see themselves as children and do not want to grow up.15 They associate childhood with fun, and adulthood with taking responsibility and the end of entertainment.15 In summary, the I-Generation works less, spends less time on homework, goes out less and spends more time with their smartphones. In other words, the members of this generation are dependent on technology.
As mentioned above, today’s university students are defined by concepts such as ‘the Digital Generation’, ‘the Internet Generation’ and ‘I-Gen’ – all descriptions based on technology. As a result, the most important psychosocial difference of today’s university students from previous ones is their dependence on technology. Individuals from these generations come to university with many advantages related to modern technological developments. However, dependence on technology brings disadvantages too. Some examples of these disadvantages emerge as problems in coping with daily life stresses and being unprepared for social pressures and responsibilities in higher education.24
Some youngsters living in the virtual world may struggle to cope with real life, which can seem slow and boring to them. According to a 2015 study, 33 per cent of high school senior students in the US had not read a single book for pleasure in the previous year.15 Books are not fast enough, and do not attract the attention of a generation that has become accustomed to clicking on the next link or scrolling to the next screen in a few seconds.15 However, the most important impact of the digital world is on relationships.
As mentioned above, in my study examining the problems of students who applied to university counselling centres, I found that between 2009–2013, more students applied to the centre with relationship problems.17 This finding is significant in terms of showing that problems on university campuses have also changed in parallel with changes in social life. Today’s university students encounter problems in face-to-face relationships due to their dependence on technology. Generally, students living in the world of virtual relations seem to have more difficulty in face-to-face relationship environments at university.
The internet, which has a central place in all our lives, can serve different purposes for different people. Although respondents of a study conducted by Gross et al stated that they used the internet for activities such as homework, shopping, playing games and downloading music, research shows that their priorities are social.25 The I-Generation prefers electronic communication to social interaction/ communication. The internet has become a virtual meeting point where youngsters ‘hang out’ with their peers. In other words, today’s youngsters prefer virtual communication rather than side-by-side and face-to-face communication. It seems that in the I-Generation, online friendship has replaced offline friendship, and social media and messaging have replaced other forms of communication and entertainment styles.15,23
Twenge found that in the last 15 years, the number of adolescents who meet with their friends every day has fallen by half, and that face-to-face interaction among the study’s university student participants has decreased by seven hours a week compared with the late 1980s.15 This decrease means spending seven fewer hours on social skills, reconciliation and improving emotion management per week.15 Since the I-Generation does not practise social skills as often, they may be more likely to experience anxiety in interviews and in making friends.
Virtual communication may be advantageous for shy, socially anxious and isolated youngsters, especially in allowing them to practise their social skills without the risks associated with face-to-face interactions, and it may provide a basic social support.26 However, online communication brings many drawbacks. In addition to the above-mentioned issues, as screen time increases, a tendency towards broodiness, loneliness, insomnia-related problems, depression and suicide risk also increase.15
Changes in the family
Changes in family structure and roles over the years is also thought to have a role in increasing and changing students’ problems. The family, which is the most basic social structure, was, in times past, composed of numerous individuals across generations, whereas the concept of the nuclear family has now become the norm. In particular, today’s university students have largely grown up in nuclear families and have not always experienced ongoing interaction with a wider range of generations, including their grandparents.15,21 In addition, due to the increase in divorce rates, some have grown up with only one parent. One-third have divorced parents.22 In addition, today’s university students come from the generation that has the oldest parents.
On the other hand, families today are more child centred and have more parental involvement than previous generations. Families often shoulder the responsibilities of their children and make decisions on their behalf. Since the members of Generation Y have grown up with parents and teachers who closely monitor and support them to help them succeed in their chosen endeavours, when making career decisions they may be more dependent on parents or rely on advice from more experienced, knowledgeable role models whom they trust.27 As a result, students may lack problem-solving skills at university, especially in face-to-face relationships.
Economics and mental health
The World Health Organisation acknowledges the deep connection between financial stress and mental health and states that economic recession strengthens and intensifies mental health problems.28 In my study, I found that registrations at the university counselling centre increased most between 2005–2009. These were the years following the economic crisis of 2001 in Turkey; this suggests, again, that the economic crisis led to increasing mental health problems over this period.16
University years are challenging for many, partly due to psychological and emotional developmental for young adults, and partly due to the challenges of university life. It is therefore important to reduce risk factors and increase protective factors for the mental health of youth at this life stage. In addition, the problems of university students change according to many era-specific variables – psychosocial, economic and technological. To respond to the psychological and emotional needs of university students, it is important to take into account the impact of rapid psychosocial and economic changes in the 21st century and to consider how these have impacted on students’ presenting problems. Individual difficulties need to be understood in wider social, political and economic contexts.
As mentioned previously, the most significant psychosocial difference for today’s university students is their dependence on technology. Many students have difficulties in face-to-face relationships and in coping with the stresses of daily life because they mostly live in a virtual world. In addition, as a result of changes in family structure, students who are more dependent on their parents may lack problem-solving skills, especially in face-to-face relationships. Moreover, economic difficulties also increase the severity of problems experienced by late adolescents, so it is important to establish supportive resources for economically disadvantaged students.
Students’ mental health should not be seen solely as the responsibility of counsellors, psychologists or, more generally, of mental health professionals. University administrators, academic and administrative staff have important roles and responsibilities as well. All staff may need also to adjust their roles according to the environmental changes impacting on students. All employees, especially managers, need to consider ways to engage with and improve students’ health and wellbeing as part of the mission of higher education.
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