Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
When a young man I work with in my therapy practice headed off to college in 2019, his future looked bright. He made friends, joined a fraternity, and reported to his parents that he was adjusting well, thriving socially and doing well in classes.
The reality was much darker. He stopped attending classes after the first week. He began smoking weed throughout the day. He started binge-drinking and playing video games nearly all the time, switching up whom he spent time with every few hours to elude detection.
He told nobody, at that point, what was really going on in his life.
The past seven years or so, up to and through the pandemic, about 35 of my colleagues nationwide and I have witnessed a growing phenomenon – young men of all races and ethnicities who start college and get very far off track within weeks or a month or two. None of us had run into this phenomenon before. It consistently involves male first-year students (with only one or two exceptions over the years) and it is worsening each year. One clinician describes it as the “fresh-man crash.”
These young men manage their lives poorly, drinking or smoking too much, blowing off classes, and sometimes withdrawing completely into dorm rooms or fraternity houses.
It’s exhausting and disheartening for these young men and their families to correct these failures.
Why does this happen to our boys?
Students starting their first year on every college campus suffer the anxiety, depression and loneliness affiliated with missed opportunities, social isolation and academic stress. And many of them feel alone and isolated, often believing they’re the only one in a dire situation.
In high school, boys can navigate their lives successfully enough as those days are far more structured, and total independence is not expected. The oversight of parents, teachers and coaches often eliminates the need for them to reach out for help independently.
Once in college, a strong sense of independence is suddenly necessary to thrive in a far less structured environment. Many boys fail to use the tools available to them at their disposal effectively. Instead, they place far more energy into faking that they are OK.
What about our freshman girls?
Most long-term gender-based research on college students would suggest that girls experience more anxiety, and nearly as much or more depression, as boys. These studies tend to take into account the full term of college life.
When we examine the collegiate years semester by semester, however, a different pattern seems to be emerging. At the onset of college, women report lower initial psychological functioning including lower self-esteem, according to a 2018 study in Emerging Adulthood. These issues do tend to recover, however, over the course of the college years. My colleagues and I find that female students tend to work through issues of self-esteem and other emotional difficulties through talking with one another and sometimes working with a therapist on campus.
Male students, on the other hand, arrive on campus reporting a lower degree of support from friends and avoidant emotional coping behavior. Women are more likely to reach out for help and work through their issues over time, while many men isolate and regress early in college, failing or dropping out quickly before resolving their issues or utilizing on-campus support systems, according to the 2018 study.
The academic factors
We know that college courses differ in significant ways from high school. Self-advocacy is critical, especially for freshmen struggling in large classes. They must communicate with professors and teachers’ assistants to drive academic success.
Boys in the United States are neither raised nor accustomed to asking for help, even when they need it, and they often fail to make use of the resources available to them on campus. Many of the young men I see tell me they felt ashamed of their academic struggles and opted out of classes once they became challenging.
Our girls and young women are more likely to ask for the assistance they need from professors, advisers and other counselors without shame or fear of failure. This is a significant part of the reason we see far fewer girls failing in this fashion.
Young men tend to overestimate the degree to which their academic struggles are hopeless. What feels to them like an irreparable situation – a few missed classes or poorly understood concepts – can often be corrected with a couple of meetings with a professor.
Before getting too far into that first semester, parents should encourage their freshman sons to arrange meetings with academic advisers, professors, RAs and even a therapist. I find young men are far more likely to remove the taboo they feel around these resources if they are familiar with them.
And press your boys to go to class, every class. This may seem obvious, but to many college freshmen, it is not. Going to class is the primary solution to academic difficulties. Otherwise, it’s easy for a young man to convince himself that he cannot catch up.
The social factors
Many young people carry unrealistic expectations for their social lives into college. They immediately expect the most enjoyable years of their lives, making lifelong friends and connecting romantically with ease.
But they typically arrive on campus to a very different reality. They know few people and experience more social anxiety than they were prepared for. Unlike their female counterparts, young men tend toward isolation, or stay in small groups engaged in static, non-social activities like playing video games for hours in a dorm room.
Encourage your rising freshman to engage in the social activities arranged for them, even if they are not initially inclined to participate. Have them host a pizza party on move-in day when all the freshmen are looking for ways to connect with each other.
The emotional factors
I worked with a young man in 2018 whose roommate fit this “failure profile,” and my client had absolutely no idea he was struggling. His roommate would leave in the morning, backpack in tow, as if he were heading off to class. He would talk about connecting with friends, participating in extracurricular activities, all the trappings of a full collegiate life.
But my client knew something wasn’t quite right. He never met any of his roommate’s friends, never saw him study or go out. He spent virtually all of his time in the dorm room, smoking weed and playing video games. He seemed emotionally burdened and short-tempered.
By Thanksgiving of that first semester, my client’s roommate had packed his belongings and headed home. My client regrets not asking whether his roommate was OK when he first sensed he was not.
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Boys remain reluctant to share their emotional lives, especially their struggles, with one another. Even in situations where discussing mental wellness is normalized, they still feel a degree of shame around feelings of depression and anxiety. The more we encourage our boys to share emotionally, the better they will be at staving off these difficulties.
If you have a rising freshman boy, or girl for that matter, talk to them about this phenomenon. Encourage them to seek help at the college counseling center if needed.
Also, urge them to check in with their male friends from time to time to see how they’re doing, and how they’re feeling. That check-in may begin a process of emotional self-care that can save a semester and pay dividends for a lifetime.