Swarthmore students are more likely to report frequent depression and frequent feelings of being overwhelmed, and are less likely to report higher than average emotional health than the national average, according to a recent Phoenix survey. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA publishes a national survey of undergraduate first-years called “The American Freshman” every year. In February, the Phoenix conducted its own survey of Swarthmore students using questions from “The American Freshman,” with a focus on the questions that dealt with emotional well-being and lifestyle.
According to “The American Freshman” survey, 10.4 percent of first-years at 4-year colleges reported having felt frequently depressed in the last year. For Swarthmore first-years, the rate stood at 26.2 percent. Among Swarthmore’s entire student population, the rate of frequent depression was 36.2 percent.
Corroborating this data, only 30.9 percent of first-years and 28.3 percent of all respondents in the Phoenix survey reported that their emotional health was “above average” or “top ten percent” with respect to the average person their age. In the “American Freshman” data, 49.2 percent of first-years at four-year colleges estimated their emotional health to be in this higher range. The Phoenix survey is not necessarily representative of the entire student body, as it did not take data from an entirely random sample. Furthermore, the sample size was 127 students, less than 10% of the student body.
CAPS Director David Ramirez thought that these high numbers may partially reflect that the student body is highly aware of and open about issues of mental and emotional health.
“I think there has been an increase in [students] wanting both the college and each other to know that there’s significant suffering,” he said. “That’s actually a positive trend, that people recognize their distress and put it out there for people to connect with.”
Ramirez thought that this trend might also be related to increased usage rates of CAPS services. He also thought that students may have attributed different meanings to the word “depressed” in the survey.
“The word depression is a global term that has nested within it a lot of phenomena that have to do with the lifestyle of being a high-achieving student,” he said.
For Ramirez these phenomena include “capital D depression,” “lower-case d depression,” and “distress.”
By far, academics was the lifestyle factor that respondents seemed to most consistently connect to emotional health. A full 82.6 percent of the respondents who reported feeling frequently depressed also reported feeling frequently overwhelmed by everything they had to do. When asked to list factors that affected emotional health at Swarthmore, 52 percent of respondents’ answers included the phrases “work,” “homework,” and/or “workload.” Other common phrases in the responses were “stress,” “pressure,” and “academics.”
Noemí Fernandez, the college’s Wellness Program Coordinator, was unsurprised by the connection between academics and emotional health. For Fernandez, “What is a little surprising is how strongly that correlation is felt by the Swarthmore student.”
“In my experience, it’s been primarily the workload at Swarthmore that actively causes stress,” Natalie Giotta ’15 wrote in an email. “I frequently hear my peers remark how much better life would be if Swarthmore gave less work; or speculate what Saturdays at a ‘normal school’ are like; or laugh about the reading load at the Penn class they’re taking.”
Giotta emphasized, however, that while stress can keep people from addressing mental health problems, it does not cause them on its own.
Similarly, Ramirez pushed back against the notion that the workload alone causes poor mental health.
“I do think Swarthmore has particular academic demands. Do I think that causes depression? No, I think it causes distress,” said Ramirez. “Nothing about being productive in and of itself is linked to poor mental health except when the need to produce undermines the opportunity for restorative activities… Sleep, time to think, and quality of relationships are the mediating factors for the workload.”
The data from the Phoenix survey on weekly hours spent on homework further complicates the relationship between health and workload. While frequently feeling depressed and frequently feeling overwhelmed seemed to be related, the rate of depression was fairly constant regardless of how many hours of work a student reported doing in a given week. Students who do more homework were not more likely to report feeling depressed. Frequent depression was reported by 36.2 percent of students who typically spend more than 20 hours on homework in a week, 36.1 percent of students who spend between 16 and 20 hours, and 39.4 percent of students who spend between 11 and 15 hours.
“I think importantly the data shows that no matter how many hours of work someone reports having done the frequency of depression is higher at Swarthmore than the national average,” said Fernandez. “The bigger issue here is why does the work overall, no matter how many hours, feel so overwhelming?”
Fernandez emphasized the importance of connecting students to non-peer support resources.
“There’s a lot of room between zero and mental health crisis,” she said. “How can we support the student experience in between, and how many people are aware that there are systems in place to help them work through those feelings? … I don’t think there’s a single person on this campus who would say to you ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’ They might say, ‘I don’t know how to help you, but here is someone who can.’”
Joyce Wu ’15 has found that Swarthmore students often have a hard time seeking out those resources.
“Something I’ve heard from administrators and faculty members that I’ve talked to, is that in general Swarthmore students are really bad at asking for help. I don’t know even if we had better support systems whether people would use them. Taking that leap to get help is really hard for some people here,” Wu said.
At the same time, Wu thought that the college’s resources are responsible for at least some of the student body’s timidity. In order for CAPS to improve, Wu argued, they need to “stop being defensive” and make changes that will make their services more useful to students. Wu noted that they had heard that using CAPS was especially difficult for trans students they knows.
“[I’ve heard from] trans students that when they have tried to go to CAPS, the way that CAPS people have dealt with their gender identities have made them not want to use CAPS at all. Trans kids are more likely to have mental health issues so that just makes it more dangerous,” Wu said.
Rachel Flaherman ’16, who has consulted Swarthmore religious advisers in the past, has found them to be very helpful.
“I really like having broad answers and having someone tell me that ‘this is part of the human experience’ in a way that is part of a framework that I relate to, which is Judaism,” she said.
She noted, however, that because the religious advisors are not fully funded by the college, their hours on campus are limited.
“The college is trying to separate church from school but by doing that they force the spiritual advisors to do a lot of fundraising on their own, and work for free a lot, and also be here a lot fewer hours than students want them to be here,” Flaherman said.
Fernandez noted that there are many resources on campus besides CAPS and religious advisors, including the class deans, Speak 2 Swatties, and herself. Furthermore, she emphasized that there are resources to be found off campus, such as the numerous state and national mental health hotlines.
Drawing from their friends’ experiences, Wu feels that it is sometimes difficult to receive accommodations from professors for mental health issues even when students do ask for help.
“Professors seem to be a lot more likely to give accommodations if you’re physically ill,” they said. “They’re a lot more willing to grant you extensions or cut down your workload than if you go in and say ‘I’m going through a spell of depression.’”
Another student felt that, while many faculty members are very accommodating, the inflexibility of some professors can make it difficult for students to balance their lives. The student, who preferred to remain anonymous, described a recent instance where their class confronted a professor about the amount of work that was being assigned.
“We went to her with this concern collectively and she was just like, ‘No … you aren’t working hard enough.’ I think that’s the [same as] the self-talk a lot of Swatties have, which is, ‘I’m not working hard enough, I didn’t do all the reading’ … That can be really damaging to be telling yourself all the time,” they said.
For Fernandez, it is this kind of self-criticism that is so dangerous to emotional well-being.
“I think particularly at a highly selective competitive institution such as Swarthmore and others, we got to where we are because we were very critical,” she said. “We are critical thinkers, critical actors, but we are also very critical of ourselves. Being critical is one thing, but criticizing ourselves is just a small step away [from that].”
Outside of even seeking external resources, Fernandez believes, students can address their internal support systems.
“We forget that we can support ourselves just by being reflective and taking the time to think and not being robotic about our actions,” she said. “Be kind to yourself, I think we forget that.”