Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and self-harm.
According to the 2021 Healthy Minds Network Study, 34 percent of college students have an anxiety disorder and 41 percent are experiencing moderate to major depression. Moreover, data from the Fall 2021 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment reveals that nearly 75 percent of college students report moderate to serious psychological distress. These findings from nationwide data are in line with anecdotal reports from Amherst students, staff, and faculty about the current mental health crisis on campus.
Although many different factors contribute to mental health problems, including the ongoing stress of a global pandemic, empirical evidence demonstrates that one of the best strategies for improving mental well-being is developing meaningful social connections. People who are more socially connected to their community are happier, physically healthier, and report fewer mental health problems.
As the chair of psychology, and a faculty member with a specific focus in research and teaching on close relationships and mental well-being, I therefore became quite concerned when numerous students shared with me their anxiety about this year’s new housing assignment procedures. During my nearly 25 years at Amherst, students have discussed a variety of personal issues with me, including self-harm, sexual misconduct, and deaths of loved ones. But prior to this spring, not a single student has ever shared any concerns about room draw with me.
Although the dean of students describes this new process as one that will “allow all students equal access to all of the available housing options while still maintaining the opportunity for students to choose to live in closer proximity to each other,” in reality this new system fosters a culture of exclusion and doubt. Students with “good numbers” are forced to choose between selecting a more desirable room and delaying their selection for friends with “bad numbers.” Students with “bad numbers” are penalized by not only getting a less desirable room, but also doing so in isolation, as their friends with better numbers will have already selected their rooms. In sum, this new housing system seems intentionally designed to separate friend groups and deprive students of social support (in an attempt to preclude larger groups from selecting rooms together).
This new process creates an “every person for themselves” type of situation, and places intense and unnecessary stress on friend groups at a time when students are most in need of close and connected friendships to counteract the considerable stress and anxiety they have experienced over the past two years. This decision seems especially unwise given that many students have only experienced Amherst during a global pandemic, and thus may not have established particularly broad friend groups due to the unique nature of their campus experience (e.g., virtual orientation, singles for all students during the 2020-2021 academic year, remote learning through much of the 2020-2021 academic year, and so on).
At a time in which many of our peer institutions (Stanford, Dartmouth) have experienced a rise in deaths by suicide, and the Amherst student body is by all accounts experiencing a mental health crisis (a student body that even pre-pandemic had high rates of loneliness compared to our peer institutions), I am highly concerned about this new system and highly fearful of its potential consequences for student psychological well-being. As noted eloquently by several students in a piece published last week, this decision is already creating social difficulties and fragmenting friendships. Sadly, it may also have lasting effects next year and beyond by increasing rates of loneliness, isolation, and indeed, suicidal ideation.