National Need, Local Impact: Helping iGen Navigate Rough Waters

National Need, Local Impact: Helping iGen Navigate Rough Waters

In a quiet corner of the brightly adorned lobby of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Hope College stands a tall black metal carousel, not unlike one that would hold greeting cards at a Holland gift shop. However, the “greetings” on the informational pamphlets here are anything but cheerful.

Understanding and Treating Depression, one cover reads. Suicide Prevention, another offers. Understanding and Treating Anxiety. Maybe I Have a Friend With an Eating Disorder. The titles merely hint at the dizzying variety of mental and emotional conditions that beset students at colleges and universities nationwide — including Hope, where more than 2,400 individual counseling sessions were conducted at CAPS during the 2017-18 academic year.

And, just as across the country, the need at Hope is increasing.

“I think a bigger portion of the student body is struggling with depression and anxiety,” observes Dr. Kristen Gray, who is Hope’s associate dean for health and counseling, and has directed CAPS since 1998. “In my full 20-plus years here we’ve always seen students who had depression that was debilitating, anxiety that was debilitating, pronounced eating disorders, self injury. But it seems to be so much more the norm now. It’s just very, very different.”

What’s different? For one thing, anxiety — historically viewed as the quiet roommate of depression and therefore less serious — has skyrocketed in numbers, and significance. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is now the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting nearly one-third of all adolescents as well as adults. Over the past decade, it has overtaken depression as the No. 1 reason college students seek counseling services.

“Our students are anxious, and they’re anxious about everything,” notes Gray. “They’re anxious about academics and they’re anxious about relationships. They’re anxious about their future, how they look, how they’re perceived. And not just a little stressed. It used to be, ‘Oooh, students are really stressed out over finals week.’ No, this is a regular, middle-of-the-semester, can’t-identify-what’s-driving-it, just anxious as all get-out.”

For another, the DNA of the modern college student has changed suddenly and dramatically in the past half-dozen years — so much so that a new book by Dr. Jean Twenge, the San Diego State University psychology professor and author who has been chronicling generational shifts for nearly 25 years, has become something of a student handbook for adults on Hope’s campus in attempting to understand existing and incoming classes. iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us holds a prominent place on Gray’s desk in the Bultman Student Center, was recommended reading for the college’s Administrative Council and was referenced heavily by the Rev. Dr. Dennis Voskuil in the Hope president’s spring “Presidential Perspective” newsletter (

Among Twenge’s many sobering findings, “iGen,” the name she coined for those born in 1995 and later, “is distinct from every previous generation in how its members spend their time, how they behave, and their attitudes toward religion, sexuality and politics,” she writes. They practically were born with smartphones in their hands and don’t remember a time before the Internet.

And in large measure due to the isolation bred by endlessly staring into their electronic device screens, Twenge concludes, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

What’s more, according to a recent study of college students published in the Psychological Bulletin, their self-imposed obsession for perfection, fueled by social media and comparisons to friends and influencers online, far exceeds any pressure parents or professors could ever apply. No small challenges for Gray, winner of the 2017 national President’s Award from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, and her staff of five full-time counselors.

“Certainly we can feel overwhelmed at times,” she says, “and at the same time Hope has supported us beautifully. I am so grateful when I talk to directors at other schools that every time I have gone forward with a request, I have found support.”

Gray says CAPS takes some counterintuitive steps to connect with iGen arrivals. For instance, incoming freshmen who come to their offices are encouraged to consider group counseling. Why? Because after undergoing Hope’s unique first-week experiences — joining an orientation group and a First-Year Seminar group, on top of meeting their residence hall classmates for the first time — these previously insular young people may need a group to talk about groups.

“We don’t force anybody,” Gray says, “but it’s interesting to me that we have five or six groups running each semester, and students who are in group in the fall all want group in the spring. They are all ‘screen people,’ and once they have this sense of, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to open up to someone and not be judged, but to have people really support and challenge me,’ they want more.

“There’s going to be challenge in a group! But it’s challenge, not judgment, and with a therapist present to help them process and move through it if they get to a sticking point. It’s kind of magic.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is now the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting nearly one-third of all adolescents as well as adults. Over the past decade, it has overtaken depression as the No. 1 reason college students seek counseling services.

A new initiative being launched this fall will offer additional counseling hours for students while also doing what Hope does best: provide outstanding educational opportunities. CAPS is beginning a professional field experience for doctoral-level students in counseling psychology. Successful candidates for these year-long positions will have experience providing counseling in other settings and will gain experience with college-aged students. CAPS will offer both clinical supervision and educational experience in addition to counseling in both individual and group settings.

Dr. Kristen Gray

Hope students also benefit from what Gray calls the “circle of care” that interconnects support organizations on campus. It’s a team that includes not only CAPS but Campus Ministries, Campus Safety, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Health Center, Residential Life, Student Life, athletic coaches, and the new Boerigter Center for Calling and Career — along with many other faculty and staff — all working to identify and support every at-risk student. “One of the things I tell people at Hope is, I don’t care where somebody comes into the circle of care,” says Gray. “We just need to get them in there.”