Gliding on the surface, many college students paddle frantically to stay afloat

Like swans, many young women at elite colleges are gracefully composed on the surface. But beneath the water, they are paddling desperately.(AJC File)

The AJC has the benefit of a dozen smart college interns working with us this summer, including Allison Gordon. Gordon is a rising junior at Brown University. Born and raised in Atlanta, she is pursuing a B.A. in history. This essay was inspired by a series of interviews she conducted for her Writing Medical Narrative class.

In her first column for the AJC Get Schooled blog, Gordon talks about the often unseen stresses facing college students at elite schools. She discusses the “curated” life these students present on social media and how those sunny photos often mask doubts and struggles.

A few years ago, I wrote about the increasing concern over anxiety levels in college students, especially young women. The 2013 National College Health Assessment found half of students report experiencing overwhelming anxiety. My observation at the time: Somehow, we’ve communicated to young women that because more options are open to them — they can run track, run for class president and run for homecoming queen — they should do it all and do it well.

The pressures show no sign of abating. (Here is a story suggesting some reasons why.)  In its fall 2016 National College Health Assessment,  the American College Health Association found 66.8 of female college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety sometime in the last 12 months, compared to 46.7 of male students. Forty percent of college women reported finding it difficult to function due to depression some time in the last year, compared to 31 percent of their male peers.

With that background, here is Gordon’s column.

By Allison Gordon

I first came across the “swan effect” in an article about suicide. The young woman who died was a track runner at an Ivy League school. She had a big, loving family and a large group of friends. She was pretty, popular, talented. Her name was Madison.

Hours before Madison sprinted off a Philadelphia parking deck, she posted a photo on Instagram. It was twinkly. Heavily filtered. People commented. Scores of her followers liked the photo.

And that night, she was gone.

This track runner had seemed so polished, so “together.” Few saw her struggle, and when they did, she shrugged it off as a normal part of the college transition. Like a swan, she was gracefully composed on the surface. But beneath the water, she was paddling desperately.

After learning of Madison’s suicide, I read about other young women at high achieving places who had committed suicide. I began to think about how the “swan effect” plays out on my own campus, Brown University. In 2010 and 2011, the Princeton Review ranked Brown as the “happiest” college in America. This semester, I became a tour guide. At the beginning of each session, I proudly explain to parents how this community can’t be replicated anywhere else.

Allison Gordon is a rising junior at Brown University.

Brown is the “hippie Ivy.” We are a living, breathing brochure. In the winter, we play in the snow and upload happy snapshots to Instagram. In the spring, the Main Green is full of students strumming instruments, reading in the sun, discussing the issues of the day. And for the most part, my Brown experience has genuinely felt happy. The people I meet are passionate, excited, and dynamic. I love my friends and my classes. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

But Brown is not immune to the swan effect. In fact, it is very present here, albeit in a specific way. At Brown, many of my peers (especially women) curate their social media to only highlight the good times. Everything looks beautiful, effortless. But it’s no secret that Brown has struggled with mental health issues in the past. It makes sense; the pressure to succeed can be suffocating. It feels selfish to experience sadness when every opportunity has been afforded to you.

Since middle school, I’ve worked to be high achieving. I constantly set goals for myself, and when I don’t reach them, I feel crushed. When I do accomplish something, I immediately cross it off a growing list and attack the next problem. When people would ask me how I “did it all,” I would smile, deflect. Any compliment reacted to my skin uneasily. Each nicety felt falsely coated, saccharine.

With every accolade, that anxiety grew. Getting into Brown felt like a tipping point. I saw the “Congratulations!” and exploded. Stars lit behind my eyes, a world of possibility opened. But something else lurked beneath the surface, a weight of new insecurities. Did I actually get in? Was it a mistake? Am I a fraud?

Apparently, that feeling has a name. Coined in 1978, the imposter syndrome encapsulates “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” I argue students at Brown, particularly women, are susceptible to this feeling. When I would feel homesick or burnt out freshman year, I would remind myself to Appreciate everything! It’s a miracle you got in! At Brown, there is an unspoken imperative to keep any “unhappiness” to yourself. So many people would kill to go to Brown. Don’t mess it up.

This tacit pressure is why Madison’s suicide felt so resonant. I know so many girls at Brown who look perfect and happy and whole. But I am friends with these “perfect” girls, and I know how much they struggle. Madison’s case is not isolated; according to the American Freshman Survey, the emotional well-being of incoming freshman has hit its lowest point in 30 years.

My intention is not to “expose” Brown students as secretly unhappy. In my biased opinion, I attend the happiest school. I desperately want to stay there forever. (Sorry, Mom and Dad). But after two years, I understand it’s okay to feel more than pure joy toward this place. As a scared freshman, I was afraid to ever feel unhappy.

My group of tour guides and I have labeled certain days “Early Decision Days.” At these times, the quads teem with students. On ED Days, you can hear snatches of laughter and Nietzsche and neuroscience. I love those days at Brown.

But even tour guides aren’t immune to darker moments of insecurity. After two years, I realized ED days are often the exception. And that’s okay. Normal weeks are laced with overdue assignments and gulps of coffee and the occasional bout of loneliness.

“College is the best four years of your life,” everyone always says. But I think that’s only possible if you accept your experience for what it really is — beyond a glossy brochure. I am learning that everyone benefits from discussing imperfect moments. I am learning to be less hard on myself.  I am learning it’s okay to show how much you’re paddling.

 

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37 comments
AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

"When I was ... studying to get my Ph.D. and I was taking something called the theory qualifier, which I can definitively say is the second worst thing in my life after chemotherapy. And I was complaining to my mother about how hard this test was and how awful it was, and she just leaned over and she patted me on the arm and she said, we know how you feel honey, and remember when your father was your age he was fighting the Germans. "

Professor Randy Pausch

gapeach101
gapeach101

My eldest went to a summer program at MIT.  I remember being shocked at the signs on the bathroom doors for "suicide counseling".  My middle child went to an Ivy, same signs, not as surprised Mom. 

Life is so different today because of social media.  Back in the old days, dorm mates leaned on each other, because that's all they had.  Everybody had bad days. These days, kids never leave their HS friends. No one wants to appear weak to their HS buddies.  I think that's a big part of the problem.

redweather
redweather

The reference to the so-called impostor syndrome hasn't gotten any mention in these comments, but it seems to be at the heart of the "social media" generation's angst. Social media is driven by easy, instant validation, or "likes."

But that kind of endorsement often registers a false-positive, i.e., it seems to say that one is admirable, or doing something really cool, when in fact all it often amounts to is a desire to be "liked" in return. 

If one spends too much time seeking and receiving this kind of confirmation, the result can be a very confused appreciation for what has value.  

I would counsel all young people to view social media as a very imperfect measure of worth.

sparkenzap
sparkenzap

The stress comes from waking up one day and realizing you are NOT a special snowflake.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

 I remember being over at my cousin's house when they were watching to see where his birthday fell on the Vietnam Draft Lottery.  Low number, graduate high school, 8 weeks boot camp, and off to Vietnam you go.No stress there.  I mean, certainly not like juggling a term paper and a part time job.
Of course, then there is the "normal" stress of trying to make a marriage work while juggling a mortgage, doctor bills, teenagers, a boss that is a straight up a-hole, wondering how you are going to pay for braces, and then the furnace decides to quit on the night it drops to fifteen degrees.In other words, life happens.Then, one day, when you start noticing there are more gray hairs than brown, you think back and count your blessings.  All the stuff you worried about is forgotten because all you want to do is roll around on the floor with that little feller that calls you "Pawpaw".

sparkenzap
sparkenzap

You know, getting as degree that pays the bills will likely alleviate much of the anxiety.  I know the liberal types do not like that truth!

Johns Creek Native
Johns Creek Native

Statistically, liberals are better educated than conservatives. Which is obvious from the level of discourse.

methuselahschild
methuselahschild

@Johns Creek Native level of education does not relate to level of earning capacity.. when giving out loans (except for educational loans) most lenders look for your capacity to pay them back.. that needs to be part of the decision for giving educational loans.. does the field of endeavor have a propensity for employing the student at a high enough level to pay back the loan... 


Surelyyoujest
Surelyyoujest

This is not a new phenomenon nor one limited to high achievers - I went to a "southern" Ivy League college ( Davidson College) in 1971 - same feelings and plenty of insecure moments during the worst 4 years of my life.  And I survived, too, graduating on time and under budget, yet with real questions about myself and abilities that consumed me for the next 40 years in the work world - as I was told about graduating from Davidson, "if you graduate from here you will have it made". Uh, not really.

Babycat
Babycat

I think some people are pushed into college when college is not the best avenue for them, some would benefit by taking a year off between high school and college and volunteer, intern or get a job and really get to know themselves.  There is a lot of pressure on the students and add the pressure of being a student-athlete and it takes a toll.  In today's society where everyone is a winner, when they are dealt a tough patch sometimes they really do not know how to handle it.  As parents, even though it is tough, sometimes we need to let them fail or make a mistake so they can learn then how to handle it.

Astropig
Astropig

@Babycat


" As parents, even though it is tough, sometimes we need to let them fail or make a mistake so they can learn then how to handle it."


Amen. Parents should be there for the takeoffs and the crash landings.It's no shame to fail at something, as long as it doesn't become a pathology.

USMC2841
USMC2841

As a History major from Brown, while a noble calling and distinguished institution, the cost/return aspects have to be considered.  History is very important but the job market for a History major is very limited compared to other fields of study.  Only a very few will reap a lucrative career, while the others will become History teachers or professors.   Unfortunately, these by nature are not high paying jobs.  Combine the limited career options with the reality that the degree can be attained at schools costing 1/4 of Brown and you're adding undue stress.  

  As for extra-curricular activities.  Prioritize.  Go to school to be an athletic student not a student-athlete.  If government is your career goal then representing the student body may help your resume.  Otherwise focus on studies.

  Athletics and Student Government in elite schools goes back more than a century.  Why the suddenly new stress?  I thought today's young ladies were stronger than this.  Or is it that Feminism only wants victims?

Astropig
Astropig

@USMC2841


" History is very important but the job market for a History major is very limited compared to other fields of study.  Only a very few will reap a lucrative career, while the others will become History teachers or professors.   Unfortunately, these by nature are not high paying jobs. "


This is common sense. Too bad that it is not common knowledge.

Johns Creek Native
Johns Creek Native

Actually, the vast majority of history majors go on to professional school, come out with JDs and MBAs and do very well, thank you.

Only someone with limited exposure to education would believe that it was "common sense" that a history degree from Brown was not valuable.

Johns Creek Native
Johns Creek Native

I suspect that this very accomplished young woman will have no problem finding success with her Ivy League degree and education. Your advice is short sighted and ill informed.

Swedish House Mafia
Swedish House Mafia

This is exactly what happens when your parents raise you as their best friend.  

A long time friend and client of mine told me her daughter called her crying from Athens the first week of her freshman year.  

She was in the middle of the grocery store crying because she didn't have a clue on how to grocery shop for herself.  

That's PP parenting and there are countless examples of kids like this.  No wonder they feel overwhelmed and anxious and are afraid of chalk and dark wood paneling.  

Astropig
Astropig

@Swedish House Mafia


Wow. Great comments. Stuff that we taught our kids from the get-go (shopping,car repair,basic survival skills) seem to be a lost art with some kids these days.No wonder they feel scared and alone.

MissDaisyCook
MissDaisyCook

Cry me a river; another snowflake story, I guess.  Up until this article it had always been a duck gliding on the pond and paddling like crazy under the water;  I guess if your from Brown a duck wouldn't be hoity-toity enough. 

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@MissDaisyCook Odd response to a serious issue: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 25 to 34 and the third-leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24.

alt.AJC
alt.AJC

Females are more subject to anxiety and depression than their male peers regardless of age or occupational status, though the undergraduate strain of political correctness may make that especially inconvenient to acknowledge.

Kate Maloney
Kate Maloney

Thank you for this column. I shared it on my page for my students, all of whom are high achievers, and for my three daughters, each of whom is also a high achiever and each of whom had to make hard decisions about where to go to college and how to do it. You and your intern have highlighted a real and significant issue for our young people, men and women both (although it seems to affect young women more.)

redweather
redweather

The "swan effect" isn't new.



RICHARD CORY by E. A. Robinson


Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.


And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.


And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.


So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head. 





MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@redweather This generation faces challenges we did not a generation ago. Our parents did not need second mortgages to send us to college. And we weren’t worried about getting jobs. 

Today, there is an arms race to get into top schools with most costing around $62,000 a year. (I almost fell out of my chair when the admissions director at one elite school said, “Plan to spend  $70,000 a year including the costs to go home on breaks.”)

The job market is dismal, and many of these students will never have employee-sponsored healthcare. (I had it, as did most of my friends.)

Here is a piece from Psychology Today on this generation:

Comparing groups across generations is admittedly difficult, but the data clearly point to things being far worse now. Trend data clearly suggest increases in levels of stress, depression and anxiety at least since the 1980s. Consider that one study found that the average high school student in the year 2000 has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient did in the 1950s; and those rates have only increased in the last decade. Utilizing the MMPI to assess psychopathology, Twenge and colleagues found five times as many students in 2007 surpassed clinical cutoffs in one or more mental health categories, compared with those who took the measure several decades ago.

One of the most dangerous aspects of depression and mental health concerns in general is suicide. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA) the suicide rate among young adults, ages 15-24, has tripled since the 1950s and suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students. That study also found 9.4% of students reported seriously considering attempted suicide at least once in a 12 month period, a marked increase from several decades ago.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201402/the-college-student-mental-health-crisis

methuselahschild
methuselahschild

@MaureenDowney @redweather there are other schools beside "elite" .. which offer a education at a much more reasonable price.. all i can say to these young ladies is. "welcome to the male world" .. these feelings and realities have been happening for a long time in the male world.  i think most of this is because as children, especially  young girls and adolescent women  are not prepared for the world as it is. you are starting to see more of it in young men now.. all through school and early life ( trophy for everyone so as not to harm their ego) we have raise a lot of people who cant cope.  it is much better to learn not everyone wins every time, early in life.. let them fail so that they learn to overcome.. the debt issue is easy to fix.. students need to learn at an early age the cost of things.. and if you can get return on the investment. . it makes no sense to spend 60k for a degree in which you will be making 30k a year after school. . i could see spending this much for a petroleum engineering degree as the return is high even for that cost.. a lot of these young people spend that much on a degree in which they have nope hope of even getting a job in that field (if there even is a field of endeavor called womens studies) .. but please keep telling them to follow their dreams and do what make them happy, its worked so well for them and us.. how about telling them the truth about the cold hard world.. pick a degree where you can provide for yourself and family, choose a school based on the degree targeted and its final pay so as to be cost effective.. and last but not least... money cant buy happiness, but lack or money (living hand to mouth) will make you so unhappy... 

kaelyn
kaelyn

Do parents really "need" to take second mortgages to send their kids to college, or are they being duped into believing that "top" colleges are worth the cost?

While I appreciate the author's perspective, it does have a classist tone. I'm sure the pressures of being at an elite, expensive Ivy take a toll on students trying desperately to keep up appearances. However, there are probably millions of community college students struggling with how to pay for books or gas money. College is stressful for everyone.

I do agree that we as a nation, not just college students, need better mental health services.

1776 Nation
1776 Nation

@MaureenDowney @redweather 

You forget to mention the soaring national debt which ObamaCare and other welfare giveaways place on the backs of the rising generation.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@1776 Nation @MaureenDowney @redweather A lot of this generation is on ObamaCare. 

A 2016 news story on enrollees: 


Nationwide, almost 4 million people under 35 signed up on the federal and state marketplaces through Dec. 26. Of those, nearly 3 million are ages 18-34 – more than a quarter of all plan selections. The officials said one enrollment trend involving young adults was particularly encouraging.

“Over 1 million new consumers under age 35 signed up for HealthCare.gov coverage,” said Andy Slavitt, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. They represent 41 percent of all new consumers, he said, up from 38 percent at this time last year.


https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/01/07/more-than-11-3-million-americans-signed-up-for-obamacare-report-says/?utm_term=.107976032a8d

Astropig
Astropig

@MaureenDowney @redweather


"The job market is dismal"...


Huh? Maybe in journalism,I guess.But for people in the real world,you usually need a shooting war to get unemployment this low . The unemployment rate for bachelor's grads is 2.3% for May 2017. (http://www.macrotrends.net/2509/unemployment-rate-by-educationHow in the world is that dismal? What would it take to be fantastic? 


I think that one of the reasons that young adults have such a grim outlook in the midst of boundless promise and opportunity is that for some strange reason.about half of the country simply hates the blessings that we as a nation enjoy.Never have understood that,but it stubbornly persists.When I was that age,back during the Malaise Era brought on by Jimmy Carter,if you had told me that we could have all of todays modern conveniences,low unemployment and a standard of living such as we enjoy...Well, suicide would have been the last thing on my mind,that's for sure.

methuselahschild
methuselahschild

@Astropig @MaureenDowney @redweather back in the day we also knew our success depended on us. and we knew we would fail more than we succeeded .. but that was ok .. we also knew we were not going to start out (right out of college) being the CEO.. being a success takes time, hard work and a little luck.. what did edison say .. 


Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

and 

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.


AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

Buhwahahaha!!
"When I was ... studying to get my Ph.D. and I was taking something called the theory qualifier, which I can definitively say is the second worst thing in my life after chemotherapy. And I was complaining to my mother about how hard this test was and how awful it was, and she just leaned over and she patted me on the arm and she said, we know how you feel honey, and remember when your father was your age he was fighting the Germans. "
Professor Randy Pausch