NBC news recently published the article, College Teaches Anxious Students Not to See Failure as ‘Catastrophic’ about how an increasing number of students at East Carolina University (ECU) are having difficulty coping with university life. So many ECU students are experiencing crippling anxiety, fear, and suicidal tendencies that, “the college has boosted its counseling staff and resources and also introduced a new program — Recognition, Insight and Openness or RIO — to teach students self-talk, journaling, mindfulness and other cognitive-affective stress management techniques.”
While it is good that ECU, and other universities, are recognizing the problems facing students so they may help the students to cope, many people see it as a bad thing that so many 18 to 22-year-olds are unable to deal with university life. After all, universities have structures in place to shield young-adults from many of the hardships they will need to face as adults, and if young-adults can’t handle university life, that doesn’t bode well for their prospects handling post-university adult life.
The article, College Teaches Anxious Students Not to See Failure as ‘Catastrophic’, is just one of many articles that describes the difficulty “millennials” are having coping with “adulting” (behaving like an adult).
Every generation has complained about the perceived inadequacies of the generations that follow them, but there seems to be more of a conversation about why the millennial generation is unable to cope with life than the normal “kids these days” grumbling. Some of the reasons that people point to when attempting to explain why millennial young-adults are fearful, anxious, and unable to cope include:
- A life of participation awards
- They miss their mommy
- Society is too liberal
- Society is too conservative
- Bad parenting
- Bad schooling
- Not learning conflict resolution skills
- Kids never hearing the word, “NO”
- Peace (“Send them to war to toughen them up”)
- Fear-mongering in the media
- The world is legitimately scary
- Video games
- Lack of socialization
- Lack of sports/extracurricular activities
- Too many activities/over-scheduling
- Societal standards that are too high
- Societal standards that are too low
- No experience of failure
- No experience of success
- Social media
- Unrealistic expectations
- Social pressure
- Parents do too much for their kids
- Parents do too little for their kids
- College is a difficult transition period (give the kids a break)
I’m sure that there is some truth to each one of these assertions, but I think that there is one culprit that hasn’t been mentioned – but should be.
- Endocrine disrupting chemicals
The reason why I think endocrine disrupting chemicals are responsible for millennials being unable to cope with “adulting” is because rats who were exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals showed similar characteristics:
“The two groups of rats show no difference in behavior as long as life is pleasant and uneventful, but as soon as they are confronted by any sort of negative event, great differences are apparent. In every instance, the rats who have eaten Lake Ontario salmon show a much greater reaction than those who have dined on Pacific salmon or rat chow. Daly describes them as ‘hyper-reactive’ even to mildly negative situations.”
This passage is from Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. The experiment referred to involved feeding rats salmon from Lake Ontario that was known to contain high levels of endocrine disrupting pollutants.
Yes, the study referenced is a rat study not a human study, but many rat and mouse studies done with endocrine-disrupting chemicals have proven to have the same results for humans. (Notably, the disastrous transgenerational consequences of in-utero DES exposure was shown in mice first.) When mammalian hormones are disturbed through exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, there are consequences, and those consequences seem to be similar, if not the same, for rats/mice and men.
A similar study looked at women who consumed salmon from Lake Michigan that contained high levels of PCBs and other endocrine-disrupting contaminants before, during, and after their pregnancy. In addition to being born with smaller head circumferences, the children were also less cooperative and tended to over-react more than their counterparts who were not exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in-utero and through breast-milk:
“When the children were tested at four years of age, seventeen of them refused to cooperate during at least one test, all of them children of mothers with the highest levels of PCBs in their milk. She thinks this is probably an overreaction to the mildly frustrating experience of taking such tests.” (Also from Our Stolen Future)
Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals has been shown to affect both rat and child tolerance for change and frustration. I surmise that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals is why millennial university students are unable to cope with the stresses of university life.
Millennial students, and the rest of us, have been exposed to a massive number of endocrine-disrupting chemicals over our lives. Though the experiments referred to above are from a few decades ago, the situation hasn’t improved – it has gotten worse – and many of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals studied are persistent in that they essentially never biodegrade and continually go through the food chain. It is noted in Our Stolen Future that:
“Hormone-disrupting synthetic chemicals are today an inescapable fact of life. They are in our food and water. The reach us through the air and through consumer goods we bring into our homes. They have spread across the face of the Earth and insinuated themselves into virtually every nook and cranny of the food web. There is no way to recall them. That is the dilemma we face.”
It is a dilemma indeed.
Though I’m guessing that the bulleted cultural causes for the lack of coping skills among millennials will resonate with most people more than the possibility that endocrine disrupting chemicals are profoundly affecting mental health and even personalities, I suspect that endocrine disrupting chemical exposures came first, and that they are shaping our culture more than we realize. Children that used to be called high-strung are now the norm, and our society is struggling with how to cope with the loss of capacity in a generation of young men and women. The authors of Our Stolen Future summarize the interplay between the harm of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and culture in this passage:
“Wildlife data, laboratory experiments, the DES experience, and a handful of human studies support the possibility of physical, mental, and behavioral disruption in humans that could affect fertility, learning ability, aggression, and conceivably even parenting and mating behavior. To what extent have scrambled messages contributed to what we see happening around us—the reproductive problems seen among family and friends, the rash of learning problems showing up in our schools, the disintegration of the family and the neglect and abuse of children, and the increasing violence in our society? If hormone-disrupting chemicals undermine the immune system, could they be increasing our vulnerability to disease and, thus, contributing to rising health-care costs? Most fundamentally, what does this mean for the human prospect?”
Indeed, what does it mean for the human prospect? A few kids that are high-strung and slow to take on adult roles is something that society can absorb. But can we absorb multiple generations of people who are unable to function as students or adults without crippling anxiety and fear? Bravery and maturity certainly aren’t the only human traits that are valuable, but they are worth something, and if endocrine-disrupting chemicals are re-wiring our brains so that we are no longer brave or capable of being adults, that is most definitely a loss.