Oh the Trauma, Oh the Discrimination

How campus counseling centers advance a political narrative.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) recently issued its 2023 Annual Report. It presents an abundance of dire information about the therapy-addicted young people now trying to make their way through the wasteland of undergraduate education. I have read it so you don’t have to.

But before I turn to its diagnostic particulars, let me indulge with the broader picture that appears nowhere in CCMH’s report. Virtually everyone, including CCMH, agrees that American college students are suffering an epidemic of mental illness. But why?

Virtually everyone agrees that American college students are suffering an epidemic of mental illness. But why?Among the recent books on the topic is The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. That book has garnered considerable attention in light of Haidt’s claim that smartphones, which make social-media connectivity omnipresent in the lives of children, are the root cause of the vast growth in self-reported and diagnosed mental illness in the college-age cohort.

Haidt’s explanation has the merit of matching the chronology. He reports that 2012 “was the first year that a majority of Americans owned a smartphone” and that, “by 2015, two-thirds of teens did too.” That was the period in which “rates of teenage depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicide began to rise sharply.” Smartphones, in his account, amplified the normal anxieties of young people and trapped kids in a world where they were constantly exposed to the dangers of ridicule and ostracism.

But correlation, we all know, doesn’t necessarily mean causation. Moreover, other experts have offered equally plausible explanations that veer off in directions that make the iPhone an innocent bystander. We might think, for example, of President Obama’s promotion of national self-recrimination and guilt. Growing up in a society that has descended into the bathos of collective self-hatred can’t have been very good for children.

These children also grew up in the shadow of the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which abolished laws against gay sex. Lawrence sent rolling downhill the boulder that culminated in the Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which guaranteed the right to marry for same-sex couples and which continues to reverberate in the transgender movement, as well as in the efforts of schools to promote homosexuality and “gender transition.” Growing up in a society that is determined to toss aside several thousand years of Judeo-Christian teaching and to defy the lessons of human evolution and biology radically interferes with the maturation of children. Might this have some bearing on the mental health of young people?

These children also grew up in schools that began as early as kindergarten to indoctrinate them in apocalyptic climate change. Might spending 12 years learning that the adults in charge of the world have recklessly put the earth on a path to life-ending disaster have had some effect on children’s psychological resilience?

Millions of boys are medicated into passivity with prescription drugs and even then relegated to the educational sidelines.Even if those children managed to shrug off the idea that the Industrial Revolution was a mistake, they had ahead of them a decade of hectoring on how America is and always has been a racist state. For minority students, this means the certainty that oppression will never end; for white students, it means a lifetime of repentance for both ancestral guilt and continuing participation in implicit racial tyranny. Neither side of the equation promises a well-adjusted life.

Have I missed anything? Well, there is the “war on boys,” brought to us by the feminist establishment fused with educational authority. It has decided that what was once recognized as normal male development is now an affront to gender values. Millions of boys are medicated into passivity with prescription drugs and even then relegated to the educational sidelines. This doesn’t seem to be especially conducive to a confident and happy life.

But maybe the problem really is just the excessive use of smartphones. I can’t say for sure. What light does CCMH shed on this?

Two beams, actually. One is the expansionist agenda of the therapeutic industry itself. The other is the determination of therapists to turn the subjective experience of “discrimination” into a key cause of mental ill-health.

The report’s introduction includes some important disclaimers. We are warned not to treat the observations CCMH offers as a survey of the general student population. All it contains is a summary of what some 800 institutional counseling centers experienced in 2023, material that involved 1,259,380 appointments at counseling centers. So: snapshot, not survey.

The introduction also offers a timeline of key findings from CCMH’s previous annual reports back to 2015. This includes the note that between fall 2009 and spring 2015, “counseling center utilization increased by an average of 30-40 percent, while enrollment increased only 5 percent.” Year by year, CCMH’s reports emphasize that campus counseling centers could not keep up with demand. In 2019, CCMH introduced a “Clinical Load Index” (CLI) to standardize the way in which the number of clients per counselor was counted. By 2022, CCMH was busy building the case that good—and well-funded—counseling centers are good for higher education’s business. Or, more delicately put, they “contribute to the academic mission of institutions” by lowering the drop-out rate of “distressed” students.

Students who sought counseling in 2023 were more likely than ever to have been counseled before and to have “psychotropic medication.”The report mentions in passing that students “with a history of psychiatric hospitalization were 48 percent more likely to withdraw from school during treatment,” and students with “an extracurricular activity were 50 percent less likely to drop out of school.” Neither figure occasions surprise. But if I could paraphrase, the report seems to say that the stresses of college have a fairly high chance of aggravating severe mental illness and that the self-therapy of an active social life helps many students overcome their psychological trials.

The new data for 2023 reinforce all these lessons. Students who sought counseling that year were more likely than ever to have been counseled before and to have “psychotropic medication.” Those who had had prior counseling amounted to 61 percent of the total, and 47 percent of counselees reported a “history of trauma.” One might infer from this that the prior counseling didn’t work very well and that an extraordinary number of college students arrived on campus “traumatized.” Of course, the definition of “trauma” these days is pretty fluid. Perhaps some of these students were traumatized by classmates who refused to use their preferred pronouns. The chart that supports the level of “traumatic events” in CCMH’s report doesn’t break them down beyond the categories “unwanted sexual contact,” “experienced harassing, controlling, and/or abusive behavior,” and “experienced traumatic event.”

Some good news for 2023: “Serious suicidal ideation” was down a bit (34.4 percent) from its all-time high (36.9 percent), and suicide attempts were slightly lower, too (10.6 percent vs. 10.9 percent). In an affirmation of Jonathan Haidt’s book title, The Anxious Generation, the most commonly reported form of distress was “anxiety,” reported by 65.5 percent of clients and rated their “top concern” by 24.8 percent, far outweighing the next most likely “top concern,” depression, at 14.4 percent.

CCMH’s 2023 Annual Report has a top concern of its own. It declares that, “after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the national reckoning that ensued, CCMH immediately began to explore ways students could share recent experiences of discrimination when they seek services at college counseling centers.” I’ll be a little bit of spoilsport. There are still many of us who do not believe the official narrative that the death of George Floyd was a “murder.” An even greater number of us, observing the riots and hysteria that followed Floyd’s death, would take issue with the characterization “national reckoning.” Political opportunism, street theater, panic among those charged to maintain order, and ritual self-recrimination do not add up to a “national reckoning.” But it was a significant event in the lives of young people and a descent into greater mismanagement on the part of colleges and universities. Among other things, it prompted Harvard University to appoint the egregiously unqualified Claudine Gay to be its new president.

CCMH aims to recruit genuine mental-health issues to the agenda of racial resentment.Having elevated the death of a drug-addicted career criminal with a history of heart disease to the status of an inflection point in the nation’s mental health, CCMH embarked on an effort to “capture experiences of discrimination” in its clinical reports, while acknowledging that “the experience of discrimination is not a mental health diagnosis.” It is, says CCMH, “a societal problem.” Nonetheless, CCMH wanted to know whether self-reported experiences of discrimination involving any of six categories (disability, gender, nationality, race, religion, and sexual orientation) could be “associated” with mental-health symptoms.

The results are indeed interesting. Some 80.2 percent of student-clients reported “no discrimination.” Some 11.4 percent reported being discriminated against for one cause, and 8.4 percent felt discriminated against for two or more causes. Given the cachet that comes to students for claiming victimhood, these percentages are strikingly low. Those who did report discrimination, however, also reported slightly higher levels of “social isolation,” “distress,” and “suicidal ideation.”

One cannot tell from any of this whether those who “experienced” discrimination were actually discriminated against, or conversely whether those who didn’t “experience” discrimination escaped any of the six named varieties. What we have in the report is subjectivity piled on subjectivity. What it seems to mean is that college students who seek psychological counseling are slightly more likely to feel bad about themselves if they also believe they have been discriminated against. That makes sense, but it leads to the seemingly banal conclusion that counseling centers should gather “information of identity-based discrimination at the beginning of treatment.”

I write “seemingly” because the report goes on to embed this line of inquiry into the “critical role” counseling centers serve in “supporting Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) goals.” In other words, CCMH reveals itself as an ideological enterprise determined to advance its own form of discrimination. It now aims to recruit genuine mental-health issues to the agenda of those who wish to make racial resentment and division the central experience of American higher education.

You have to dig a bit in the CCMH 2023 Annual Report to get to this, but there it is. You are welcome. I put down my shovel.

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.