— When college students return home from a trip to the U.S. for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they are encouraged to be mindful of their surroundings, especially if they are young and impressionable.
But some of them are taking their newfound freedom to their campuses, and some are putting their personal space to the test, as a new study suggests.
“There’s a perception that it’s OK to be ‘out there,’ that you can walk in the street or ride a bike without fear of harassment,” said Dr. David J. Wechsler, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“We don’t think that’s true anymore.”
A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that students who are on college campuses are at risk for developing anxiety and depression as they grow older.
The study, which looked at 1,000 U.K. college students, found that people who are college-aged and in their 20s are less likely to be in safe spaces and have more anxiety and stress levels than those who are in their 30s and 40s.
“Students that are young are not going to have the same kinds of opportunities that older people have,” said Wechstler.
“They’re going to be at risk of anxiety and self-destructive behavior.”
It’s an especially alarming concern among college students who tend to be younger, as well as younger adults who tend not to be as well educated.
The researchers asked about 200 college students to report how much they had experienced social isolation during their freshman year, and how much time they spent with their peers.
The results showed that young adults reported the most isolating experiences.
We also found that the more social isolation experienced by young adults, the higher the number of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation symptoms they reported.
We looked at a variety of different factors, including the amount of social contact with others, the frequency with which they talked with friends and the number and intensity of conversations they had.
“If you’re young, and you’re not thinking about what’s going on around you, you’re going for it,” said Professor Wechso.
“That can be dangerous.”
It also appears that people are increasingly seeking safe spaces for themselves on campus.
A 2013 survey found that of 1,836 students at seven colleges in California, two-thirds reported that they had used a public restroom or locker room at least once a week since they graduated from high school.
The survey also found a growing number of students are trying to find safe spaces to socialize, and those are becoming increasingly common, as more students are enrolled in college.
One of the most common spaces students are finding at college is in the cafeteria, where they are allowed to use the restrooms and locker rooms they are assigned.
“People are taking on a lot of social roles, and we’re not really thinking about the impact that those roles might have on us,” said David Wechsi, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Medicine.
The findings also show that students tend to experience higher levels of anxiety than other students.
“The risk of developing anxiety is much higher for students in their twenties and thirties than it is for their thirtysixers,” said J. Scott Hutton, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the College of William and Mary.
Hutton said the study is particularly worrisome because the prevalence of anxiety among college-age people has been on the rise for years.
In 2014, anxiety among young people aged 20 to 24 was the highest it had been in decades.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that anxiety was a leading cause of hospitalizations among young adults ages 20 to 29.
And research also shows that young people have higher rates of mental health problems such as depression, alcohol abuse, substance use, suicide attempts and suicide attempts.
“In the past, students who were in college were considered to be less mentally ill, so that’s a very big deal, but it seems that that’s no longer true,” said Hutton.
He said the increased use of campus restrooms and lockers by students may be the cause of these problems.
We chatted with Hutton and Wechsu in a phone interview, and they pointed to the importance of safe spaces.
“I think a lot more people are coming into the university and they are taking those steps, and I think that we’re seeing a lot less stigma around these things,” said Ourchsu.
“A lot of these things that we are learning about how to be more safe online, how to deal with stress in our own lives and relationships and our own social lives are being learned through safe spaces.”
He said he hopes that more universities, including his own, begin to take these steps to reduce anxiety among students.
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