Mental Illness Among College Students: Would a Gap Year Help?

Today’s blogger is William Beaver (Robert Morris University–Pittsburgh), author of the article “Would a ‘Gap Year’ Reduce Mental Illness Among College Students?”, which appears in the July 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of August.

I first became interested in mental illness among college students a few years ago when a dorm counselor at the college where I taught told me that the number of students on Prozac was higher than anyone would suspect. I then thought back to my years as an undergraduate. Depression, often referred to as the common cold of mental illness, obviously existed. Yet, I don’t recall anyone talking much about it, and no one ever told me they were depressed. Most likely, that was because my peer group was mostly male, where admitting any weakness rarely occurred. I do remember one time sitting around a table in the student union when someone said that a male student, whom we all knew, had tried to commit suicide. No one at the table said anything, and the subject was quickly changed.

That said, my generation certainly had things to be stressed about. A couple of days before classes started in our freshman year, the president of the school informed us that one-third of our class would not be returning for their sophomore year because they had less than the coveted 2.0, which, as I recall, turned out to be fairly accurate. For males, there was a serious penalty for getting poor grades: Vietnam. If students didn’t have a C average after two semesters, they had to sit out a semester, which also made them eligible for the draft. (I knew of two students who did end up in Vietnam.) No one talked much about that either, perhaps because the consequences could be so dire.

From my own experience, I concluded that my generation was under a lot of pressure, and depression and anxiety were probably common, but we just chose to suffer in silence. Hence, the higher rate of mental illness among today’s students was simply tied to the fact that people were more open about it. Some of the research literature agreed with my conclusion. However, other studies were finding that although people were more open about mental illness, other factors were involved, and the increase in mental illness among college students was real.

What could these factors be? Fear of school shootings, concerns about finding a good job to help pay off school loans, snowplow parents, grades, and the increased use of social media are commonly cited. In recent years, social media has garnered the most attention and has raised some intriguing questions. For instance, does the use of social media cause depression, or do students who are already depressed turn to it? One can certainly understand how cyberbullying could be harmful. On the other hand, a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that students who agreed to limit their smartphone use reported lower levels of depression, suggesting that use alone is associated with depression.

Doing something about student mental health has proved to be difficult. Schools have increased the size of their counseling departments, but we appear to need other strategies to ensure better mental health for new students. That’s where the idea of a gap year comes in—taking the year following high school graduation and engaging in some meaningful activity before starting college.

I soon discovered that, in the United States, taking a gap year is rare. Only about 3% of students do so. But in some countries, like Norway and Turkey, up to 50% of high school graduates take gap years. There hasn’t been a lot of research on the impacts of a gap year in the United States. However, the research that does exist is encouraging. For instance, in one survey, more than 90% of students taking a gap year reported they had developed as a person and were more mature and self-confident.

The question then becomes how to increase these numbers. Certainly, teachers and counselors can help get the word out and engage students who they feel would benefit from a gap year. Schools could provide information about gap year fairs held in various parts of the country. Parents also need to be informed about the potential benefits involved and that taking a gap year can help ensure an eventually successful college experience. Gap years can be international, where students experience a different culture, or can take place close to home, perhaps simply gaining experience in working and independent living. Unfortunately, no one is predicting a decline in mental illness among college students, so it’s time to try different strategies like gap years to help lessen the problem. For a closer look at these issues, see my article “Would a ‘Gap Year’ Reduce Mental Illness Among College Students?” in the July 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record.

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