iAge of Anxiety

A look at Notre Dame’s Gen Z, their world, their future, their mental health

Author: Renee Roden ’14, ’18M.T.S.


As I walk through North Dining Hall on the Thursday of midterms week, I see students studying over their meals and writing on laptops; a few relaxed groups are eating together. Signs advertise pasta stir-fry and make-your-own omelets. Spring break is being ushered in by a South Bend snowstorm. Some things never change.

But campus transformations run deeper than cosmetic improvements like North’s five-year-old facelift. As I loop around the gray, Silicon Valley-contemporary tables and chairs, I spy more earbuds and a lot more screens than when I was here as a student: televisions along the walls, iPhones, tablets and laptops among the students cramming for their exams, and GrubHub kiosks where diners order noodle bowls. I see more blue light, more slick surfaces, more chrome.

And not a single book anywhere.

Sure, I find a few open notebooks. But a textbook, a novel, a dog-eared library book? Not one.

Much like the absent book, students, staff and faculty have observed quiet but palpable changes in campus life over the past 20, 10, even two years. Higher education is grappling with the accelerating technological, social and cultural transformations of the past generation — and their painful ripple effects.

“We are in a mental health crisis whether we choose to believe it or not,” says Professor Nancy Michael, director of undergraduate studies for the University’s increasingly popular neuroscience and behavior major.

During the spring, I spoke with more than a dozen Notre Dame students and recent graduates about their experiences of mental health on campus. One student described an inertia and hopelessness that led to academic withdrawal, another recalled a psychiatric hospitalization, yet another the death of two classmates by suicide. I am withholding the names of these students, and several others I’ll quote, to protect their privacy.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rated suicide the second-highest cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. In October 2021, due to the rise of mental health disorders and distress among youth in the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national mental health emergency for adolescents and children. The context of that declaration was the COVID-19 pandemic, an inescapable — but not all-encompassing — factor in the mental health crisis of American youth.


COVID-19 and the anxiety epidemic

Notre Dame, like the rest of the world, shut down in March 2020, sending students home to continue their education remotely. But unlike most universities, Notre Dame welcomed students back the following August. While in-person classes and limited on-campus activities somewhat mitigated the pandemic’s social and academic impact, students’ memories of the 2020-21 academic year are nonetheless bleak.

Transfer student Natalie Truscott ’22 remembers her first full year at Notre Dame — her junior year of 2020-21 — with Twilight Zone-like disbelief: the HERE public-health campaign ambassadors scolding her for holding hands with her boyfriend; students closing their blinds to avoid being reported, via a portal known as the “snitch form,” for socializing in their rooms.

During her senior year, Truscott participated in the COVID-19 oral history project, a collaboration between the Office of the President and the Department of History. She focused on recording students’ mental health experiences. “There were lots of feelings of loneliness and isolation,” she said. Overall, her peers described feeling more anxious than depressed during the pandemic.

By fall 2021, most classes were held in person again, although masks were required until March 2022. As students — over 90 percent of them fully vaccinated — returned once more to their classrooms, halls and extracurriculars, the student government welcomed them back with a video titled “Onward,” featuring hugs and handshakes and crowded Grotto prayer services and football bleachers.

Students certainly wanted to put the bad times behind them. But Macy Mateer ’22, a history and film, television and theater major, says that after that exceptional 2020-21 school year, many felt an emotional whiplash from all the disruptions and the resumption of normalcy that wasn’t acknowledged. “We had moved through a campuswide crucifixion together. Everyone was like, ‘Wait, there are still holes in our hands, and no one’s talking about the holes in our hands,’” she says. “They were trying to build back the pre-pandemic world with a post-pandemic stamina.”

Mateer also participated in the COVID-19 oral history project. She said interviewing classmates gave her the chance to process her own experience. “It was just as relieving for the people we were interviewing as it was for us to look each other in the eye and say: ‘This was wild and it happened,’” she says.

Several Notre Dame students affirmed to me that they hadn’t processed the pandemic and its aftershocks with their peers. Faculty and staff said this oversight may reflect the lack of formal processing among them, too. “We can’t help [students] do something that we’ve never done,” one former rector said.

Student well-being suffered nationally during the pandemic year of 2020-21, a trend generally reflected at Notre Dame in the reported rates of depression, anxiety, eating concerns, frustration and anger, alcohol use and academic distress. Trends aside, the raw numbers were alarming: Mental health hospitalizations among all students — not just undergraduates — were already climbing steadily before the pandemic, then jumped from 44 to 60 during the 2021-22 school year.

This post-pandemic fatigue lingers. Two years of an intense, abnormal experience like the COVID-19 pandemic is no mere aberration for our brains, Nancy Michael told me, but a chronic exposure.

Michael, whose research interests include community wellness and the impacts of toxic stress, explains the COVID-19 crisis as a huge environmental deficit for our stimulus-hungry brains.

Lockdowns and quarantines and social distancing kept us stuck in the same rooms, at the same temperature, sitting idly for days that turned into weeks. The situation was particularly bad for young, developing brains, like those of college students.


Generation anxious

Roughly one in five American adults had anxiety within the past year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But while COVID-19 exacerbated a longer-term rise in the need for mental health services, Christine Caron Gebhardt, Notre Dame’s assistant vice president for student services, says the University was already acutely aware of the increased demand for counselors and therapy beforehand. Staff members say students have increasingly been arriving on campus with more mental health diagnoses, medications and experience in therapy. 

Today, “there’s less stigma” surrounding mental health, says Madeline Carson, a counselor at a private Catholic preparatory school in Minnesota.

Carson believes the increased likelihood that students will seek mental health resources when they’re facing trouble is, on the whole, a positive phenomenon. Yet she also sees an “unhealthy normalization” of suicidal ideation, self-harm and the expectation of diagnoses. Further, she says, high school students’ increasing use of clinical language about anxiety and other ailments to talk about nonclinical stresses like exams or homework has the effect of “pathologizing normalcy.”

The linguistic framework of “mental health” can sometimes ignore the ecological dimension of being human. “Mental health” is an individualistic framework: One patient’s symptoms are healed through clinical diagnosis, psychiatric medication and therapy. But that atomizing lens of mental health is not the only — nor possibly even the most pertinent — framework through which to understand the overwhelming anxiety, anomie and anguish so many students feel.

Human beings are ecological creatures. The environments we live in affect everything from the texture of our hair to our weight to our feelings. Michael says discrepancies between the quality of these environments and the neurological expectations of the human brain are key sources of stress.

“The human nervous system doesn’t change at the pace of technology,” she says. Over the millennia of human existence, our brains learned to expect certain patterns of movement, rhythms of daily life and norms of “people, place and purpose,” and when those expectations aren’t met, it creates a vulnerability in the human nervous system.

Over the past two centuries, human expectations have been thwarted consistently by the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution, massive wars, urbanization, suburban sprawl and rapid technological change. Studies show that, for instance, green spaces — especially trees — have positive effects on human mental health, while concrete, a relatively new introduction to our environment, may have a negative impact. In a relatively short period of time, we have drifted a long way from what our brains and bodies have been conditioned over 50 or 60 millennia to believe that being human means.

“The expectations of the human nervous system were set long before” the invention of smartphones, Michael says. And we know it. Neurobiologically speaking, she adds, the digital world is no substitute for the actual world. In my interviews, students, staff and faculty repeatedly identified those glowing, buzzing screens in our pockets and hands, and the buffet of entertainment they hold — YouTube, TikTok, Instagram — as a source of mental pain.

But, when it comes to our screens, knowledge doesn’t always equal willpower.

While most teens and young adults rely on social media to connect with peers — far more so than even interacting with them in person — the texts, chats and posts do not impart the same social skills that in-person interactions teach.

The apple bites back

“Social media algorithms are designed to addict you,” says Joey Jegier ’23. “Everyone knows it, but we keep allowing ourselves to use the apps.”

Bad social-media habits weren’t Jegier’s only trouble in fall 2019. A sophomore and track-and-field athlete at the time, he had gone through a bad breakup and his friendships “weren’t mature enough” to help him process it, he said. He began to isolate himself, smoke weed and play a lot of video games. He brushed off his concerned resident assistant, and he let class absences and missed assignments snowball. When his parents visited that spring for his monogram ceremony, they gently confronted him. “They said, ‘Whatever’s going on, you can tell us,’” he recalls.

Jegier withdrew that semester. During the spring of 2020, he enrolled in therapy — a step Notre Dame’s Center for Student Support and Care requires students on mental-health leave to take before reapplying to the University — and in classes at a college near his parents’ home, where he appreciated the slower pace. “Classes weren’t nearly as time-consuming, so I had time to be interested in the content itself,” Jegier says.

His second chance at Notre Dame has been a much healthier experience, says Jegier, who completed his philosophy degree in five years. He has recommitted to his Catholic faith and tries to spend time in prayer and silence, without screens. He gave up social media for Lent but admits to having “cheated” a few times.

He is hardly to blame. Holding onto teenagers’ attention spans is big business.

Two-thirds of American teenagers owned an Apple iPhone in 2015, according to San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, author of 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. And in 2017, when Twenge published that book, the average American teenager was opening his smartphone 80 times a day. Today, according to a Pew Research Center survey, more than 95 percent of teenagers own or have access to a smartphone, while 45 percent of them report being online “almost constantly.”

Among smartphone manufacturers, Apple alone raked in nearly $400 billion in revenues in 2022.

“The psychological well-being of adolescents around the world began to decline after 2012, in conjunction with the rise of smartphone access and increased internet use,” Twenge and her co-authors wrote in a 2021 study published in the Journal of Adolescence. Smartphone use weakens our ability to deep-focus and sucks up our time — time that, for most of us, would be spent socializing.

When I asked how they relax or unwind, several students talked about “turning their brains off” or “shutting down” with social media. Scrolling alone is far more prevalent than leisure-time spent with others, or even leisure as such. “TikTok feels like heaven,” one senior told me. “Like a little island.”

Moreover, blue light absorbed during late-night scrolling disrupts human sleep cycles, creating a vicious feedback loop between cellphones and lost sleep. Sleep deprivation is a strong correlating factor in anxiety and depression and affects learning and attention spans. Fifty percent of students on Notre Dame’s campus report unhealthy sleep habits, according to a peer survey that Emma Laboe, then a sophomore physics and gender studies major, conducted for a data class.

Social media fuels a corrosive culture of consumption and comparison. “When I was in college, you didn’t see all the parties you weren’t invited to,” noted one rector. Students of all backgrounds identified Instagram in particular as a source of self-doubt, but those with limited means said it made their wealthy classmates’ spring-break trips to Cabo and Europe and lavish Friday nights out painfully conspicuous.

While most teens and young adults rely on social media to connect with peers — far more so than even interacting with them in person — the texts, chats and posts do not impart the same social skills that in-person interactions teach. Several rectors noted that students look more to their parents than to friends for support and observed that students avoid vulnerable conversations or disagreements with peers.

Where did students once learn the soft skills of personal sharing, the tactics and boundaries of intellectual debate and the ways to talk — and not to talk — about hard things? What is this generation missing that once prepared young adults for adult life and the resilience that comes when you form a meaningful worldview and healthy roles and relationships?

“It’s called community,” Nancy Michael says.


Navigating without a cosmos

Michael helps lead an initiative, Self-Healing Communities of Greater Michiana, that aims to “take care of each other the way the brain and body expect.”

“The human nervous system expects to be in safe and positive relationships, and the further we live from that, the more vulnerability in our system,” she explains. She compares the experience of eating food alone — which releases dopamine in the brain to encourage the body to keep eating — to eating in community: When we “prepare food together, eat food together,” the body also releases oxytocin, which increases trust and lowers stress, and serotonin, which contributes to feelings of happiness and satisfaction, she says. “Isolation diminishes the complexities and richness of our neurobiological reactions.”

American communities are not, in general, relationship-rich environments. Over 60 percent of young adults report serious loneliness, according to another Pew survey. Over half of all Americans say they don’t know their neighbors, About a third of adults in the U.S. work remotely. Further, the number of Americans who affiliate with a religious community is declining across age groups, while the cohort of those who say they have “no religion” has risen from 16 to 29 percent.

Technology enhances our ability to isolate: Activities that once demanded in-person interaction, like grocery-shopping or eating at a restaurant, are now often mediated by interactive screens. In February, a group of Notre Dame students circulated a petition protesting the University’s new food-delivery robots, which “further support the culture of demolishing human interactions,” according to one signee. Part of the explanation for the breakdown of community may be found in the prevailing American narrative of individualism.

Among children, the need for community is obvious, the stakes high, Michael says: “If a child is not cared for, it will die.” We forget that the stakes are just as high for that child 20 years later.

“In the absence of relationships, we die more slowly, over time,” she explains, pointing to the surgeon general’s declaration of the crisis of loneliness as a public health emergency this past May. “The great cultural fallacy in America is that we grow from being dependent to independent. But we are always dependent, bound to each other in ways we cannot fathom. We grow from dependence to interdependence.”

Father Patrick Gilger, S.J., a sociologist at Loyola University Chicago, attributes the current “epidemic of anxiety” in part to the cultural fragmentation of our cosmological narratives, which he defines as “a collective narrative within which my story finds its place, origin and vector.” One person alone cannot provide herself such “a morally significant world”; a cosmos requires a group, a community.

Such groups, too, from the Kiwanis Club to the Knights of Columbus, are in decline — bleeding membership and losing their cultural influence. That leaves us anxious about our own welfare and our responsibility for ourselves and the world — a dilemma that political theorist Wendy Brown of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, calls “responsibilization.” Where humans developed in communities that shaped our identities in an environment of mutual dependence, our culture instead assigns to individuals full responsibility for finding meaningful work, funding our homes and eking out a living, all while trying to curb our carbon footprints.

Without a cosmos, young adults are forced to become individual creators of their own unique identities. They are Magellans; the internet their globe of exploration — a “world wide web” wider than Earth. Today’s digital natives have a whole universe in which to “find themselves,” but — to borrow from Gilger — no cosmos to discover themselves within. The self-made man doesn’t really seem to have it made.

While young people of all backgrounds feel this responsibility, the pressures are even more apparent at elite schools like Notre Dame. College acceptance hinges not upon a person’s role in the community but upon individual achievement, Michael notes.

In March, Notre Dame reported its lowest acceptance rate ever: 11.9 percent. Severely selective winnowing cultivates a cohort of students highly motivated to succeed among peers. Staff note that students come to Notre Dame having less downtime than in the past. In the words of one junior, students feel they must always be “doing,” without much time for “being.” Students describe campus culture as “work hard, play hard.”

“This is unsustainable,” said one senior. “It always has been.”

Michael says the “incredibly intense campus culture” is in part due to the habits and mindset students bring with them: They got into Notre Dame by maximizing their extracurricular activities and personal and professional development, which helped set them apart. They cannot simply flip a neurological switch and begin to practice intellectual exploration, restorative leisure, conversational skills, reading for fun and “just being” once they arrive on campus.

Many faculty and staff hasten to clarify that the problem is cultural and social, that they’re not blaming students for these trends. “Notre Dame students are the most intellectually curious students I’ve ever worked with, and they are the kindest students I’ve ever worked with,” says Sarah Mustillo, I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. But even the altruistic, community-minded students at Notre Dame feel the pressure to perform at the high level that included them among that 11.9 percent in the first place. “What it means to be high-achieving today versus what it meant 40 or 60 years ago has changed,” she notes.

“You have to do so much — too much for anyone. But everyone else is doing the exact same things, is involved in the exact same amount of things,” says Brigid Dunn, a junior involved in five different clubs related to the Notre Dame Band alone. The Student Activities Office numbers more than 550 clubs, up from 200 about 25 years ago, for an undergraduate population that hasn’t grown very much beyond the 8,000 students it has reported for decades.

Some staff and faculty attribute this drive to achieve to the compulsion students feel to pad their resumes in an uncertain labor market. Although they may not remember it, the 2008 recession still looms. “There’s a real insecurity, since 2008, that I’m not going to get the job I want or work for the company I want,” says Mustillo, a sociologist who studies mental health. The advent of artificial intelligence and its impact on the future of work aggravate this insecurity. “Students want to cover all their bases so that wherever the world goes next, they’ll be OK.”

Mustillo says her college promotes intellectual curiosity apart from credentialing. But in 2023, double majors are the norm, triple majors are more common than before, and most students thicken their academic portfolio with a minor or two or even three. In a competitive environment, “more” seems like the only way to rise above the pack.

In this sense, students are mirroring the institutional culture around them: constant construction, a growing endowment and higher rankings. While the University might articulate a more holistic standard of excellence, many students feel the campus culture reflects the values of college rankings rather than those outlined in Notre Dame’s mission statement.

Students feel pressure from home as well. “The level of parental involvement in our students’ lives is much, much higher than it’s been in the past,” Mustillo says. Concerns about the job market — and the high-stakes financial investment that is a Notre Dame education — factor into parental scrutiny. Several students expressed to me their need to make their education “worth it” for their parents and benefactors. Tuition alone has tripled over the past 25 years, from $20,900 in 1998 to $62,693 this fall. In that same quarter-decade, the median salary in the U.S. has risen from $38,900 to $59,000.

Room and board costs have also grown exponentially. The $4,500 price tag in 1995 had jumped to nearly $11,000 when I arrived in 2010. This fall, room and board rings in at $17,378; the Office of Financial Aid figures the total cost of attendance for 2023-24 at $83,271.

Not only do parents have good reason to stay engaged in their child’s success, they have the means to do so. “Technology makes possible a level of oversight, because information is simply there — it’s very available,” Mustillo says.

It also provides a tether. “Students who arrive at Notre Dame are having fewer experiences earlier in life that are not mediated by their phones or by their parents,” says Eric T. Styles, rector of Carroll Hall. Phones and parents may buffer students from the risks of a rapidly changing world, but that, too, comes at an anxiety-producing cost: delaying the maturity and resilience young people need to find belonging in a community outside of their family unit.

While the University might articulate a more holistic standard of excellence, many students feel the campus culture reflects the values of college rankings rather than those outlined in Notre Dame’s mission statement.


Notre Dame, like other universities, is trying to foster belonging within an increasingly multicultural student body. And, according to Rev. Joseph Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div., priest-in-residence of Dillon Hall, the structures of belonging on campus are changing.

“When I was a student, the basic unit of belonging was the dorm, and that is not the case anymore,” he says. While students have long found belonging in activities, clubs and campus ministry, rather than through their assigned residence hall, identity-affiliated programs are increasingly creating communities of belonging across campus.

Corpora is the associate director of the Transformational Leaders Program, which helps low-income and first-generation students establish social and academic support and connections with peers who are going through a similar experience. He says he feels something is lost when the residence hall is no longer the basic unit of community and belonging on campus. But he notes that the hall system was designed when the campus community consisted predominantly of white men. The University still needs to learn more about students from nonwhite backgrounds: how to serve them better, how to foster belonging.

Corpora taught 19 students in his Moreau First Year Experience seminar last year. He says his white students all listed the dorms as a place they felt belonging, but none of the students of color did.

The week after spring break, I met a senior in Hesburgh Library. He is in the second generation of his immigrant family to attend college.

He left the Catholic Church after coming out as gay as a teenager. He said the Catholicism on campus is hard for him, as is the Midwestern culture — what some call politeness, others call passive-aggression. “We sugarcoat everything on this campus,” he said.

In our conversations, he shared negative feelings about his time at Notre Dame and the struggle to resist assimilation into a wealthy, white campus culture. His professors are a bright spot — mentors who have invested in him and care about his ideas and his work.

In the focus groups I conducted, students of all backgrounds bonded over their discomfort with the wealth on display around campus, which presents as the unquestioned norm.

The senior I met in Hesburgh told me about the time a professor in a first-year seminar asked for low-income students to share an example of feeling excluded. He raised his hand and talked about the ubiquitous Canada Goose parkas, which retail for around $1,500. He remembers the girl sitting next to him quietly angling her parka so its distinctive Canada Goose shoulder patch was out of view.

He was hospitalized for five days last fall. He told me he had been raped while he was away from campus over fall break. When he returned, he attended the University Counseling Center’s drop-in hours, but had to wait two weeks for an appointment with a counselor who was gay, male and of color. In such a painful moment, he needed support from someone who would understand those dimensions of his identity.

“I miss the hospital,” he told me. There he found his vision of community. “I could be myself there. We were all equal, all wearing hospital gowns. We were all there for specific reasons, all open about why we were there.”

He paused. “It was beautiful. We were all finally human.”


People with Hope to Bring

Notre Dame has kept careful watch on the crisis in student mental health for the past decade, increasing its capacity to meet student needs, especially over the past five years, and the Division of Student Affairs has made mental health the theme of its strategic plan for the next few years.

In 2015, the University opened the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being. McWell, as it’s known, offers overextended students a calming environment of “holistic” care — beanbag chairs, aromatherapy, a snack bar that includes trail mix and strawberries, and quiet places to read, do homework, even play in a fort.

In 2019, University created the Center for Student Support and Care, which comprises the Sara Bea Accessibility Services, responsible for students with physical and learning disabilities, and the Care and Wellness consultants, who help students struggling in any way with academics, campus culture or mental health.

The counseling center has expanded its staff to 17 full-time counselors and 15 part-time counselors as of spring 2023. Early retirements, the COVID-19 pandemic and University hiring freezes have hampered efforts to expand its full-time staff, but Christine Conway ’83M.A., ’85Ph.D., the center’s director, said they hope to hire more counselors.

The University has also introduced a Red Folder Initiative — guidelines to help staff and faculty respond to mental health crises. Margaret Morgan ’06, ’08M.Ed., ’11M.Div., director of the Center for Student Support and Care, describes it as a way to help students think about their friends, their hall staff, campus ministers and others as resources who can support them through a difficult time, rather than seeing a personal therapist as their only recourse.

Since 2020, the University has worked with the Lilly Endowment to pilot “People with Hope to Bring,” which strives to change the culture on campus through formation programs for residence-hall staff, students and faculty. The five-year grant offers workshops on resilience, authentic excellence and well-being, suicide-prevention training and a small fund for restorative leisure activities in the residence halls.

Christine Caron Gebhardt says “People with Hope to Bring” asks big questions about campus culture and is open to a truly transformative shift in the structures and rhythms of campus life. Some students, for instance, have suggested instituting a day during the workweek without classes or deadlines — like the mental health days the University temporarily scheduled during the pandemic. Virtually everyone I talked to sounded the need for rest — real, communal rest — over and over, like bells of the basilica carillon.


Where to go from here?

Challenges await each graduating class. The class of 2024 faces the AI tsunami careening toward the labor and education markets, the impending decline of Pax Americana, and a climate catastrophe with a global leadership divided on how to halt it. Who, faced with such a task, would not feel deep anxiety?

But any community that aspires to be a healthy environment for developing — or developed — brains cannot conduct business as usual. Literally. Capitalism itself has fallen into disrepute. Recent polls show that anywhere between one-third and one-half of millennials and Generation Z — Americans born between 1980 and the early 2010s — hold a strongly negative view of capitalism. The American Dream of financial security and homeownership hardly inspires young people burdened with mountainous student debt and sharply rising home prices. Without such enticements, capitalism’s allure is pretty threadbare. Unregulated competition and unfettered individualism offer little remedy for the anxious mind.

Notre Dame students remain ambitious, yes, but they wonder if the pattern laid out for their success — graduate as a top student, work at a Big Four firm, “be a force for good” — is really what they want. They don’t want to have to be superheroes just to be good students. Several students expressed their longing for another way to be: a way to get off the conveyor belt of winning high school, winning college, winning large sums of money in corporate jobs.

“Sometimes,” said a sophomore engineering major, “I dream of just graduating and living a simple, normal life.”

We have created circumstances for ourselves that our human nature rejects. Our digitally overconnected, hyperindividualistic environment no longer makes sense to our brains.

And our brains may know what it means to be human better than we do at this moment. Brains know when their expectations are thwarted, and they know how to issue distress signals.

What are we talking about when we talk about “mental health”? Maybe what we really mean is that state of things in which not just our bodies, but our minds, souls and hearts, get what they need to flourish. A world in which our brains find meaning and reassurance in the environments we inhabit every day. Maybe what we mean is a cosmos — a collective narrative — and a community with whom we share it.

Renee Roden is a playwright and journalist. She lives at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago.