Mental Health at Mizzou

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the coverage of the campus protests this week, two small details reminded me of the central thesis of our September cover story from Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (debated by readers at length here). They argue that a new heightened climate of political correctness is fueling the anxiety and catastrophizing of many students that could be harming their mental health more than the perceived slights would otherwise.

The first detail is the following excerpt from Missouri Students Association letter that spurred the resignation of the university’s president and then chancellor (the whole version of the letter was released on Twitter):

The mental health of our campus is under constant attack. We asked the University to create spaces of healing and they failed to do so.

Second, from the list of demands issued to the university last month by the activist group Concerned Student 1950:

VII. We demand that the University of Missouri increases funding and resources for the University of Missouri Counseling Center for the purpose of hiring additional mental health professionals — particularly those of color, boosting mental health outreach and programming across campus, increasing campus-­wide awareness and visibility of the counseling center, and reducing lengthy wait times for prospective clients.

Here are the relevant excerpts from Haidt and Lukianoff:

These first true “social-media natives” may be different from members of previous generations in how they go about sharing their moral judgments and supporting one another in moral campaigns and conflicts. We find much to like about these trends; young people today are engaged with one another, with news stories, and with prosocial endeavors to a greater degree than when the dominant technology was television. But social media has also fundamentally shifted the balance of power in relationships between students and faculty; the latter increasingly fear what students might do to their reputations and careers by stirring up online mobs against them.

We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some portion of the trend is real. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them.

The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good. [...]

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.

Meanwhile, a sophomore journalism major at the University of Missouri writes in to address the reader who started this discussion thread:

It appears you believe the instances of discrimination Mizzou has faced are “essentially nothing.” I presume you don’t attend my school, so I’ll try to paint a picture for you: the white-washed walls with shit-smeared swastikas and the turn-away of black girls at certain fraternity parties and the Confederate flag-adorned dorm rooms and the dirty slurs thrown out the window like garbage to the Asian students walking outside. So thus it has been a great culmination of many, many little nudges of disrespect and discrimination here and there—much like how Tim Wolfe and his driver bumped their car just so slightly into a line of black peaceful protestors during this year’s homecoming parade. You wouldn’t be able to feel the impact unless you stood very close, perhaps thigh-to-bumper, to this car, and it literally touched you firsthand. And so tell me, how much closer did it need to get before it ran them over completely?