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Why Are College Freshmen More Depressed Than They've Been in Decades?

Short answer: They spend too much time on social media and not enough time partying.

Allie Conti

Allie Conti

Via Flickr user ryan melaugh.

Sad dads across America love to opine that college is supposed to be the most fun part of one's life. Although they're mostly lamenting own boring post-collegiate life choices when they say that, it sounds like something that should be true. Isn't it all about hooking up and partying? Posters of Jon Belushi? Beer bongs and complicated weed-smoking devices and sleeping until noon? I mean, when the Boyhood kid got to college he was pretty much immediately doing shrooms in a beautiful landscape with some attractive buddies. You've got to be excited if you're on your way to that sort of thing, right?

But data tells a different story. Since the 1950s, suicide rates among college students have almost doubled; in 2012, that was actually the most common way for kids that age to die according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Now a newly released study from the Higher Research Institute of UCLA claims that incoming freshmen are more depressed than they've been in 30 years.Only 3.1 percent of American adults are clinically depressed while 9.5 percent of freshman say they feel like they are. Why aren't the kids all right??

Dr. Gregory Eells, the chair of mental health and counseling services at Cornell University, thinks that economics and social media are to blame. First off, 18-year-olds spent their entire adolescences in the recession, which puts them under a lot of pressure to succeed while taking on increasingly more courses and debt. And there might be something to that: Elizabeth Hawksworth wrote for the Washington Post last September that the pressures of school once drove her to the brink of suicide.

Eells also says his clients feel increasingly uncertain about whether they are "pretenders" or "posers," which is exacerbated by Facebook. "Now there are always ways we can be evaluated socially," he told me. "We really live in a world where there's no privacy. All we have to do is make one mistake in front of a camera phone and we can be embarrassed in front of millions of people."

And increased reliance on social media for interaction has another effect that might lead to depression. Only 18 percent of UCLA's survey-takers said they spent more than 16 hours with their friends per week, whereas in 1987 that number was 37.9 percent. More specifically, kids aren't partying: In 1987, fewer than a quarter of students said they partied less than an hour per week. These days, more than 40 percent said they don't party at all.

So, are students depressed because they don't party, or do students not party because they're so overwhelmed with school, which then makes them depressed?

Either way, the phenomenon's already putting a strain on the mental health systems of some campuses. "It's hard to be efficient, and we're continuing to see more and more students every year," says Dr. Eells. "I think this study indicates to me that there's a greater need [for mental health services] than any university can manage."

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