A Time for Choosing: Anxiety and the Liberal Arts
By Paul Lagarde When the founding staff and I revived this magazine two years ago, we did so out of a deep respect for this university and a desire to perhaps, in some small way, leave it a better place than we found it. During our run, we’ve covered important issues such as third-year housing, the Confederate flag controversy, and the University’s reporting of admission statistics. The article to follow addresses what I believe to be a more fundamental issue than any of these, the issue of mental health, as it cuts to the very core of what we believe as a liberal arts university.
The W&L chapter of Active Minds, a national organization dedicated to addressing issues of mental health on college campuses, estimates that over 25 percent of students experience anxiety and depression during their time at Washington and Lee. There is no question that our university is an academically challenging one. Though W&L has succumbed to some grade inflation in recent years, it still remains far more difficult to succeed here than, say, Harvard, where the median grade awarded is an A-. In a recent interview, Dr. Kirk Luder, University Psychiatrist, told The Spectator that students are particularly susceptible to anxiety and depression during their first year of college, noting that it is the highest-risk time of life for men and the second-highest for women. “That of course has to do with the convergence of unique stresses as you’re coming to school combined with incoming first-year students not having their normal resources for support,” Luder said. “Managing freedom, a higher level of challenge to your competence, developing new friendships, developing a new adult identity, all at the same time that you have an irregular schedule, and you throw frequent binge drinking into the mix, and there are just lot of students who spiral down because their normal coping gets overwhelmed by the amount of stress that they have.”
Much of the stress facing W&L students revolves around academics. There seems to be a general sense that our generation will face much more competition in the job market than our parents did, and that in order to succeed, you will need to perform your absolute best, an attitude Dr. Luder notices frequently among today’s students. “Students now have much more pressure to get good grades than students did 25 or 30 years ago,” he said. “When I was in school 30 years ago, the students who were pre-med, or sometimes pre-law, worried about their grades, but the rest of the people weren’t too concerned. They wanted to pass, but they didn’t feel like they needed to get all A’s or all A’s and B’s.”
Dr. Luder believes that it is this pressure to perform, coupled with an increase in general availability, that has driven about 30 percent of W&L students into taking “study drugs” such as Adderall and Vyvanse without a prescription. “There’s at least 10 times more prescriptions for Adderall floating around out there than there were 20 years ago,” Luder stated. “It’s much easier to get and there’s also just the sense that ADD and ADHD are clearly over-diagnosed in the college population, especially the selective college population. And I think there’s some sense of unfairness that students have—why does this person get Adderall and I don’t?” Noting that anxiety over grades often causes students to turn to study drugs in the first place and further noting that these same study drugs can often increase anxiety as a side effect, Luder described to The Spectator the “vicious cycle” these drugs often trap students in, inculcating in students a sense that they are necessary in order to succeed academically, while at the same time, worsening the original problem, which is not pure distractibility, but anxiety, thus leading to an increased demand for study drugs and so on.
The pressure to get good grades and find a fulfilling job is a function of our modern, global society and likely here to stay, and I will submit that Harvard-style grade inflation isn’t the answer. Some of the problem likely stems from the price tag of today’s top universities—if you are shelling out 60 grand a year to attend a top school like W&L, you are likely going to feel a fair amount of pressure to make that investment worth your while, and the way you make any investment worthwhile is by achieving a high monetary return, in this case via a prestigious job. An emphasis on education as a means to a career is of course not at all in keeping with the traditional idea of the liberal arts, but in a system where the federal government, through an irrational distribution of student loans to anyone who asks, encourages universities like W&L to spend more on new buildings and raise tuition prices far beyond reasonable levels, money cannot help but enter into the equation. If students themselves do not feel the need to succeed in their studies, the parents paying the bill often provide the necessary stimulus. That is not to say that pressure is always a bad thing. Many times it pushes people beyond their own perceived limits and drives enormous achievement and creativity. It is when the pressure supersedes the end goal, however, that anxiety sets in and paralyzes individuals in their potential.
On top of the demands placed by academics, Dr. Luder added that W&L students in particular face a somewhat unique stress arising from the social demands of the campus culture. “Our students here are very highly social,” he said. “They value social interaction a lot, and there is a more generally recognized social hierarchy here than on other campuses. Part of it is related to the high percentage of people in Greek organizations, and part of it is that students tend to select this school if they want that kind of social experience. So a lot of the stresses that we see here are students who feel like they aren’t fitting in, they’re not being included in the social group that they want to be included in, they feel marginalized or alienated—that kind of thing.”
Part of the issue, Luder believes, arises from the prevalence of social media in the college student’s mindset. “There are so many more competing demands for students’ time than there used to be, and a lot of it has to do with social media and the constant connectedness. Students feel a lot of pressure about basic things like being able to respond to their friends quickly when something is going on. Take the phenomenon of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)—we’ve always experienced it, but it’s on a whole different level now than it used to be.”
College represents a time of transition for students, and with that transition comes a unique set of challenges. According to Dr. Luder, the number of students seeking treatment for mental health issues these days is higher than ever, which on the one hand is good that people are seeking the help they need, but on the other hand, perhaps indicative of an increase in the underlying problem. Our generation increasingly feels pressure to succeed in academic and social endeavors, and to do so with the appearance of effortless ease. Some have the ability to do this, but for the many who do not, their college years may be marked by anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness. They might turn to Adderall to focus during the week, and then to alcohol to forget during the weekend. In an existence fueled by whatever substance is the flavor of the moment, it isn’t difficult for one to lose sight of his or her true self. I cannot pretend to offer a solution for the problems regarding mental health on this campus, but I do know that the first step towards solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. Earlier I mentioned that the goal of a liberal arts education is not to prepare one for a career—it is not to “teach you how to think” or give you “critical thinking skills”—these are simply the buzzwords of those who seek to make liberal arts degrees desirable to employers. Rather, done properly, an education in the liberal arts will free the mind to understand what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. After all, the very root of the word ‘liberal’ is the Latin word liber, which means ‘free.’ Behind the original conception of a university lies the idea that a young person on the verge of adulthood can enter into a world of ideas and emerge several years later able to think freely and clearly about his or her place in the world. The rise of mental health issues on W&L’s campus casts doubt on that claim, leaving us, therefore, with two possibilities. We can have honest discussions about what is driving increased levels of anxiety and depression on this campus, and in doing so, hopefully address the problem, whatever it may be, at its root, or we can join the chorus of those who decry the value of a liberal arts education in this day and age as worthless, as it surely must be if it leaves a generation of students insecure and uncertain of their place in the world. Now is a time for choosing, and it is our choice that will shape the future course of this university.