By the time Victoria Ciciretto left her family’s home in Kleinburg, Ont., to live and study at the University of Toronto, the 18-year-old was already a seasoned world traveller. “I’d gone away for a month in Europe for summer school in Grade 10,” she says. “I took a Grade 12 course in Greece,” she adds. “And the year before last, I studied English in England.”
Presumably, moving 40 km away from home would be easy, but instead the arts and science student was filled with anxiety. “For my first week, I was like, ‘Oh my god, why would people say this is the most amazing time of your life?’ ”
She was nervous about living in a dorm, about classes and homework, about what major to choose and if she would make friends. There was a reason she could handle summers overseas, but was scared of university. “I had really good friends with me when I went travelling,” she says. “When I went to university, I didn’t know anybody.”
Ciciretto’s concerns are not unusual. For some, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and loneliness. For others, it’s a serious mental health issue—one that afflicts university-aged students more than any other age group.
Statistics Canada’s 2006 Community Health Survey of Mental Health and Well-being revealed that people aged 15 to 24 are most likely to experience anxiety disorders, with 6.5 per cent reporting an anxiety disorder in the past year. Studies in Canada and the U.S. have also shown that about 30 per cent of post-secondary students suffer from a mental health or substance abuse issue, compared to 18 per cent of the general population. Researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found today’s college students suffer from anxiety and depression at a higher rate than every generation since the 1930s.
Why all this stress during what’s supposed to be the most exciting time of life? Michael Van Ameringen, a professor in the department of psychiatry at McMaster University, explains that it may be timing. The co-director of the anxiety disorders clinic on campus since 1985 says students are at the peak age of susceptibility. “The university cohort is entering the age of risk for onset of psychological disorders,” he says. The first episodes of clinical depression, panic disorders and generalized anxiety typically manifest in the late teens or early twenties. That risk, paired with normal stress about the whole university or college experience, makes it the most vulnerable time.
Novelist Patricia Pearson swam through her undergraduate degree in her hometown of Toronto, but generalized anxiety disorder hit her during grad school, when she found herself alone in Chicago at the age of 23. In her book, A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine, she concludes that anxiety is more often a product of culture and circumstance (like loneliness) than something written in our biology. “There is data on the fact that in a country like Mexico, where there’s less onus on the individual and it’s more collective, anxiety doesn’t last as long,” she says.
The Mexican example and other cross-national psychological literature revealed that tight-knit communities with collective rituals in place—say churchgoing or fiestas—tended to be healthier. “You don’t feel as isolated and you don’t feel like it’s all about you,” she says. But university, Pearson points out, is often all about you; it’s a period of isolation from social supports.
In Generation Me, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, attributes anxiety to the individualism that characterizes the group born after the 1970s and she links it to unrealistic optimism. Yes, according to Twenge, there is such a thing as too much optimism: young people (“Generation Me”) have been brought up with unrealistic expectations about how their lives will turn out. “When things don’t happen the way they expect, they can hit anxiety and depression,” she says.
In other words, they have less access to the traditional social connections that promote mental health, such as closeness to family, stable relationships and a strong sense of community, so they’re more likely to experience anxiety disorders. If anxiety becomes disruptive, Twenge suggests students should pay a visit to the university counselling service, or talk to elders who have life experience. “But these rough periods can be a learning experience, too,” she says. “Things don’t have to be perfect all the time.”