By MAUREEN DOWNEY
This is the time of year when high schools and colleges crank out press releases about their outstanding students. The releases often describe young women, who along with being at the top of their class, are student government president, captain of the volleyball team, a national yodeling champion, volunteer tutor and the local Sweet Potato Queen.
When I glance at their accomplishments, I wonder how these young women can juggle all these roles and remain healthy and sane.
It may be that they can’t.
I’ve had a startling number of conversations with neighbors, friends and college administrators about the stress that female college students face today. Along with eating disorders, many young women are grappling with what used to be called a bad case of the blues. They can’t get out of bed . They can’t focus on their studies.
An admissions director told me that the rise in mental-health problems among female college students has become a recurrent topic in informal conversations with peers. Something, she says, seems to be happening to young women.
And the research bears her out.
A 2004 survey by the American College Health Association found that nearly half of all college students report feeling so depressed at some point in time that they have trouble functioning. Women describe higher levels of stress and depression. Nearly 35 percent reported feeling sad and hopeless every day, compared to 21.6 percent of male students in one national survey.
The annual nationwide Freshman Survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute shows that women are harder on themselves than men, rating their academic abilities lower than their male peers even though they earn higher grades and graduate in higher numbers.
I don’t doubt that college is far more stressful today for both sexes. Everything about the experience is tougher now . Record tuition increases over the last 10 years were hard enough on middle-class family budgets, but now students are watching their parents lose their jobs and their savings. In addition to keeping up their grades and vying for the college debate team, many students are working to help pay the bills.
In her 2008 book, “The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men,” UCLA researcher Linda Sax noted that more than twice as many women as men — 38 percent to 17.3 percent — reported feeling overwhelmed by all of their responsibilities.
It may be because women choose activities that impose greater responsibilities on them. College women spent more time studying, volunteering, helping out their families and participating in clubs and student groups than their male peers — activities that may cause stress. Men spent more time on activities that could be considered stress relievers, including sports, exercise, watching TV and playing video games.
Male college students are also free from another stress that affects women, the pressure to be ethereally slim and to prevent themselves from gaining the infamous and dreaded “freshman 15.”
A 2006 study in Nutrition Journal found that 83 percent of college women dieted. In an effort to lose weight and to avoid the purported 15-pound gain that comes in the first year of college, 32 percent of the female students skipped breakfast and 9 percent smoked.
“When compared to college males, college females are more likely to actively diet, place high importance on appearance and the benefits of maintaining an ideal weight, and engage in unsafe dieting,” noted the study. “At the core of what makes the ‘Freshman 15’ concept so problematic is the reduction of female students to a single-dimension: body type.”
A friend who attended an all-girls high school once described her transition to a sprawling state university as suddenly being under constant surveillance. (It didn’t help that a frat house she had to pass on the way to class used to hold up numbers from one to 10 in judgment of the attractiveness of female passers-by.)
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. No wonder some of them are worn out from the effort.