Why Are College Students So Depressed?

I enjoy listening to the “Fireside Chats” of Dennis Prager. They’re relaxed, informative, and full of practical wisdom. Recently (in episode 112) he chose to ponder why the rate of depression among college students is the highest ever recorded. Prager provided the following insight:

… just about everything that can give you joy and meaning—and they are related—is gone.

In large part I think he’s right, at least when you look at college kids as a group. He lists four things that give joy and meaning to life, and he notes that they are mostly lacking in the lives of college students today. I would like to take each of the four and add my own thoughts.

They don’t date. I remember that as early as the 7thgrade, and certainly in high school, I noticed how attractive girls were. It was a thrilling discovery. I remember the combined excitement and fear in trying to get to know some of them. Prager rightly points out that a big part of human life throughout history has been the excitement of the opposite sex. Being loved or being in love adds joy and meaning to life. It is beautifully captured in a famous song from West Side Story, in which a smitten Maria sings of the joy of being loved: I Feel Pretty.”

The guys who were part of the group of close friends I had would often challenge me to “ask her out” when I would talk about being attracted to a particular girl. In high school, one of the most important events was the prom. In those days, you had to have a date; you couldn’t just go as part of a group. The pressure built all year long. This exciting high-stakes opportunity meant that even guys and girls who hadn’t started to date yet began to give it a try. Yes, there were some rejections, but we guys knew that this just came with the territory.

Dating itself involved a lot of awkward moments, but there was also the thrill of beginning a process that might one day end in marriage. (Young people got married a lot earlier in the 1960s and 1970s, usually when in their early twenties.) Even if marriage wasn’t the final result, guys and girls learned a lot about one another and human relationships through dating. It was a combination of excitement, fear, and romance all wrapped up in a mystery. Although unchastity was a risk, there were also more safeguards in those days. A young man was expected to present himself at a young lady’s house and meet her parents before taking her out on a date, and he was expected to return her home by a decent hour. Dances and other youth-oriented functions were more heavily chaperoned. Double dating was also common. When we went to parties, we were expected to have a date. Sometimes a friend would set you up with a date. All of these rituals were fun, but they also performed the serious function of getting young people ready for marriage. Even if there were no immediate prospects, the point was that you had begun looking for “the one.” This added a lot of meaning and excitement to life.

I have been surprised to see over the years how dating and courting have diminished. Many attractive young women tell me they are seldom asked to go out. Social events are just group events where “the gang” shows up; you might interact with members of the opposite sex, but there is little motivation to “ask her for a date” Marriage today is often delayed into the early thirties. Endless schooling, paying down college debt, and the desire to establish a career are contributors to this, but, frankly, there is little encouragement or social pressure to be about the thrilling and important work of finding a spouse, getting married, and having a family. This used to be what life was all about. Young men acquired a trade or career so that they could have a family. Now the career seems more an end in itself for both men and women.

Human beings are wired for family. The individualism, isolation, and idiosyncrasy of the “virtual world” is no substitute for real relationships that both challenge us and help to complete and enrich us.

They don’t have religionPrior to the social revolution of the late 1960s, nearly everyone went to church. I’m not so sure we were all that pious or devoted, but “decent people” went to church, and so we went even if only from cultural inertia. Nevertheless, even if devotion was sometimes lacking, religious teaching and sensibilities did wear off on us. We got the sense that our lives were caught up in a bigger plan, the plan of God that stretched back in time. Biblical stories explained life and told of a Lord who loved us despite our sinfulness.

First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation were milestones. There were various processions, public Rosaries, and the celebration of patron saints. Many who attended Catholic school were even more deeply rooted in the life of the Church. All of this was meant to help us to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next. Life was full of meaning; the choices we made mattered. God was watching but also providing.

I can’t imagine growing up and living without a deeply rooted faith, without the doctrine and tradition that provides stability in a changing world. Very few young adults attend Mass regularly or even have a clear faith. Some surveys have indicated that fewer than 15% of adults under thirty regularly attend any sort of church services or consider faith an important part of their lives. Yet faith, even when adhered to in a perfunctory manner, was an important source of happiness and stability in the past. In fact, historically and anthropologically, religion has been the primary vehicle for instilling meaning and purpose. As Prager points out, getting rid of it is a big deal.

They don’t have a community. Virtual friends are not the same as real friends. I remember how important it was to have close friends and communal ties during my youth and I still value that today. When I was growing up there were many opportunities for communal activity. There was scouting, after-school clubs, and sports teams. I ran track in high school and sang in our church choir. I also belonged to a square dance club and the Key Club (a service organization). I worked at the local drug store and had other jobs from high school through college. All of these different activities established life-long friendships and connections; they were enriching in many ways.

While these sorts of things are not unknown today, I sense that young people partake less in them. The emergence of personal computers, smart phones, and the Internet, has reduced the social activities of most of our youth. In those days we didn’t have video games or movies at our fingertips. We had to go out and interact with other people to have fun.

Many people today spend hours absorbed in a virtual and rather self-defined universe of ideas, activities, and entertainment. Screen time doesn’t provide the same sort of community we experienced as youngsters. You can’t just click away from real people in real interactions the way you can on a computer. There are difficulties and tedium with direct human interaction, but it is ultimately more enriching and expanding than living in a self-selected, virtual world. Living in a solipsistic world robs one of the experiencing the simple joys of friendship and real human interaction; it also does little to expand one’s sense of meaning.

They don’t have a country to believe inI grew up at the end of one era and the beginning of another. Before the social revolution of the late 1960s, suburban America was a bastion of patriotism. There was an almost religious devotion to the American flag; if perchance a flag grew tattered, it was burned out of respect. I remember decorating my bike each year and riding in the Fourth of July parade. In school we studied American History with an angle that emphasized our unique greatness. We viewed the idea of dying for our country as something brave and noble.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

I still can’t sing this without tears coming to my eyes.

Yes, we loved our country and believed in its basic tenets. We were not perfect, but we had a way of rectifying our worse faults when they were held before us.

Through the 1970s, this fervent love of country gave way to the political controversies of the Vietnam War and social revolution. There are far fewer today who are stirred by love for this country. Patriotism (to be distinguished from excessive nationalism) is connected to the 4thCommandment (Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you)and helps give meaning and joy to life. To love our country is to love our families and our neighbors. Patriotism connects us to something bigger than ourselves; it is enriching and ennobling.

Yes, all these things (and others) added meaning, purpose, and joy to life. Yet these are greatly diminished, even missing, from the lives of many of our young people. Add to this the depressing negativity that is the daily fare on most college campuses. Students are told what a terrible country we live in, how evil our past was, and that an existential climate disaster is looming for which we are to blame. Many are also encouraged to feel that they are victims of some societal construct or some particular group, to be on the lookout for grievances, and to demand to be kept “safe” from opposing views. Fearmongering and ad hominem attacks have replaced the debate of ideas. If someone does not agree with my views, that person is wrong—maybe even dangerous—and must be silenced. Fear begets anger, and anger begets depression. College campuses are tense and depressing places for too many students.

These are just some of my thoughts, building on Prager’s observations. Essays such as this one invite additions and rebuttals and I welcome your comments.

Here is Dennis Prager’s original video:

4 Replies to “Why Are College Students So Depressed?”

  1. It seems the rituals of our parents and theirs struck us all as insincere and shallow. The former generations sold out to comfort and ease and left us with a broken world in which the children are enslaved to debts that can never be paid back in our own lifetime. Who created those slave systems? Our parents and theirs.
    Enmity. Yeh. There is enmity. Your ways were your ways, not the “right ways.” And now you throw your failures into our faces as successes that we just can grasp because we’re damaged. Damage begets damage. So. Let’s talk about how we inspire our youth rather than how this or that generation is better. A starting place could be advocating for student loan forgiveness—a kind of jubilee—rather than lecturing the importance of paying our debts to loan sharks who took advantage of our youthful naïveté and hopes to sell us shallow, cheap “education.” (a.k.a victim blaming). You want to win over the youth, care about their well-being today.

    1. One cannot care about today without examining the past. Also today cannot improve if it seeks to deny understanding of the past and forgiveness. We must build on the best of the past, cast off that which damages the future and learn to apply lessons to the present.

      One insight missed in the essay is that many students go to college to pursue their dreams, start understanding a chosen career and suddenly find themselves burdened down with the sins of the past. This sets them up as unable to grow or thrive. It is one thing to teach and learn from the past, it is totally another to be held up in conviction of it. As even psychologists say…dwelling and ruminating on the past of things unchangeable is not healthy. Forgiveness of the past lifts lives out of that mire and into a new and better future. Our colleges fail at this and it results in levels of depression we have not seen before. Forgiveness is a powerful force against the darkness and gloom of life.

  2. One thing I notice, sadly, about many young people is how angry they are and how much they blame their parents. It’s a hard thing for them to understand I’m sure, but most parents do the best they know how…although in truth, there certainly are failures. However, there has never been a generation of perfect virtuous parents who did everything well. Many former generations also “inherited” problems because of those that came before them and were not always treated fairly or lovingly…yet they were not necessarily beset with the level of resentment and contempt that many youth now display towards the people who gave them life, fed and clothed them, etc.

    I agree with the observations about what is missing in the lives of young people, but I think culturally we have not really come to terms with the fact that many problems we are facing are big (as in global), complex and beyond the ability of individuals to just “fix” or avoid. It would be like imagining we could all just wait out worldwide category 5 hurricanes and expect to come out unscathed. We are in a category 5 diabolical cultural storm, so to speak.

  3. You cannot change the past. the here and now is reality. Get off your phone, stop being a sissy and stand up for what you have done, what you owe. Your generation is one of self pity and safe rooms. grow up.

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