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If you ever attended college [or university, in the UK], you might fondly remember many of the life-long memories, friendships, and lucrative activities you experienced during those few years.
You may also remember some of the more reckless activities you engaged in and might chuckle or cringe at the memory of them, depending on the situation.
For many students, especially those who live away from home on campus, college can be a playground of exploration, experimentation, and engaging in new and often risky behaviors free from the limitations set by their caregivers. While almost considered a right of passage to engage in these risky behaviors (“College is for experimentation”, “These are the best years of your life”, etc.), engagement is partially due to the developmental-period college students are in, psychologically speaking.
The young adult brain is in a unique state of development and has become the focus of a lot of research by life-span psychologists as a result. I’d also like to examine some of the behaviors we have come to associate with college, their biological and psychological motivations, and how these behaviors can affect men’s mental and physical health as well as their long-term development. It is important to mention that I am focusing mainly on undergraduate college students (typically ages 18-22), as opposed to those who have graduated.
For many young adults and adolescents, college is a major part of their development and the increasing number of students attending has resulted in a moratorium on what we as society deem to be “adults”. This, coupled with new research in the field of brain development, has led psychologists to re-define those college-aged years as “emerging adulthood”.
This would indicate that from about ages 18 to 25, people are in a sort of limbo state of “not a teen, but not yet an adult”.
Those 3 or 4 years of young, exciting life are also a staging ground for the developing adult to fine tune their adult “identity” and try out the many forms that can take.
Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development explains that early adolescence is a period of identity development, and later adolescence and adulthood is a period of developing intimacy (i.e. long-term relationships, marriage, etc.). However, these stages overlap in the college years, and much of the social expectancies, goals, and activities engaged in are motivated both.
Adolescence and emerging adulthood are also periods in which people go through developmental changes that aren’t completely unlike the development of a toddler, (no offense intended). In fact, several psychologists including David Elkind, an American psychologist who heavily researched adolescent development called it a “revisiting of infant egocentrism”.
Elkind also talks about the idea of the “personal fable” as well as “adolescent invulnerability” – which almost entirely motivates often-reckless sensation-seeking behaviors that are socially reinforced by the norms and expectations of the university experience.
The “personal fable”, however, describes how many adolescents unconsciously see themselves as the protagonist of their story, their goals and feelings unique to others, and as such their experiences are most important to them. Everyone can remember either feeling or witnessing the idea that “no one understands” them – this is actually age-appropriate and mostly a typical part of development.
More specifically, the developing adult sees the world as being something they have true “control over” for the first time in their lives. The freedom that begins in the teens and reaches an apex with young adulthood (especially during college/university) allows students to explore their environment and manipulate it to their own will. If you don’t want to attend lecture no one will force you, and if you want to stay out until dawn because you’ve been hitting it off with someone at the bar that is your choice to make. Naturally, there will be consequences: poor grades, perhaps STDs, but they are often defiantly or innocently ignored.
This behavior can be explained through another aspect of the personal fable: “subjective invulnerability”. This is the idea that consequences will not affect the individual, that they are strong, sturdy, and able to avoid or withstand any ills that befall them. As within stories throughout history, the protagonist will always succeed – it is, after all, their story.
When put into the context of university freshmen in their first semester or two away from home, it is plain to see how this can be a recipe for potential disaster.
In short, adolescents unconsciously believe that “negative consequences can happen to others, but not to me”.
Engaging in potentially dangerous or destructive behaviors is the result of an emerging adults unique mind-state, and coupled with societal expectations, leads to activities such as binge drinking, sexual promiscuity, and engaging in dangerous activities such as fraternity hazing (although that last one is mostly unique to the US).
To a university student, their short years at school are The Odyssey, and the detours, brushes with danger, and romantic encounters are what make for a great story, and one they will tell their grandkids (perhaps, when they are older). The consequences of those actions are not important and like in The Odyssey won’t have any long-term effect on them… as far as they are concerned.
If the personal fable and subjective invulnerability are the individual’s drivers for potentially reckless behavior, then societal norms – and particularly norms around masculinity – are the social drivers.
There are many social expectancies during the college/university experience – perhaps more so than academic expectancies. For young men, it is a chance for them to become successful romantic partners, and almost every film or series focusing on university-age adolescents involves this to some extent: with the American Pie series coming to particularly strong mind. There is also the chance to engage in more substance-use activities, from drinking culture to drug culture, and a part of a student’s identity does indeed involve where they stand on alcohol and drug use.
Fraternity and sorority culture are pillars of these behaviors, (mainly in the US, but fast growing in other countries as well). Fraternity culture is the embodiment of personal fable bottled up into an off-campus house with Greek lettering above the doorway, and fraternity members often view themselves as part of a bigger community, with a sense of belonging and importance, that runs parallel with the high propensity for drinking, partying, and engagement in sexual activity.
To be in a popular fraternity is to be campus royalty: It is at your house that all the best parties are thrown, all the best social activities and charity events that you can claim ownership of, and the freedom to embrace whatever vice you choose is available in the extreme.
What better way to fuel a young adult’s personal fable than to join an elite group of like-minded individuals who open the door for the many university social goals...? So long as they pay the cost of membership – be it financial or behavioral. While it may be strongest in fraternity and sorority culture this is also true of sports clubs and even social clubs. Sports teams would “haze” the new members in similar ways to fraternities and sororities, and while the culture changed flags based on the group, the activities were mostly the same. I myself know from my undergraduate years spent in the university Gaming Group, engaging in everything from 24-hour gaming contests to alcohol-fueled ragers, (despite it being considered “nerd culture” and a far cry away from the fraternities, to say the least).
These groups, no matter the flag, allow a budding adult to embrace their chosen identities, be it frat boy or gaming nerd, and to follow it through all the activities that come with it, all within the safety of the ‘real world microcosm’ that is a university campus.
The issue that comes up with all of this is that adolescents typically do not fully consider the potential consequences of their actions. In the US, unintentional injuries and motor accidents are the leading causes of death for adolescents aged 15-25 (Center for Disease Control, n.d.). This also includes both alcohol and non-alcohol related death and injuries, of which are especially common on college campuses (Turner, Leno, & Keller, 2013).
It is not uncommon to hear of reckless behavior leading to injury or death while at university, I recall myself fraternity activity being halted completely by the university due to a student almost dying of alcohol poisoning due to an off-campus fraternities hazing activity, and a student as part of a ritual for another fraternity breaking his ankles due to jumping off a third story (second story in the UK) balcony.
Additionally, clubs and organisations will typically have mixers in which the new members are similarly hazed, such as recklessly driving with the new students in the trunk of a car.
Young men are also at a higher risk for unintentional injury and suicide compared to women in this age group, and this was true of all university settings both private and public (Turner, Leno, & Keller, 2013). Typically, the unintentional injuries stem from that feeling of subjective invulnerability - young adult men typically misjudge or ignore the risks of engaging in these activities for the adrenaline rush or other positive effects it may bring.
The result is that many young adults lose their lives while at university, and it is a well-known tragedy to hear of a student who loses their life to a motor accident or an unintentional injury.
It’s important to note it’s not all negative, as many of these behaviors and thought patterns can help a budding adolescent stand their ground in a new and intimidating world, especially when forming their identity. Looking toward the future can be frightening for some and having that surety-of-self helps motivate an adolescent towards goal achievement, despite there being some reckless behavior along the way…
However, the importance of college socially and academically means there is an increased pressure for achievement on college students’ shoulders. It is considered a highly valued ability to be able to party heavily on Friday and Saturday and yet study all day on Sunday, and so being able to balance social and academic responsibilities is a daunting prospect at best. Developmentally, college students are at the point where their brain is starting to reach some amount of maturity, although not completely. They are in the “final” stages of many developmental theories, such as Freud’s psycho-sexual development and Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. As such, college-age students may feel prepared physically and mentally for what awaits them, whether or not that’s the objective truth.
Conceptually, the personal fable is a mixed bag of pros and cons.
Feelings of invulnerability and a penchant for taking risks allows students to take those gambles that may pan out well for them occupationally, such as reaching out to a professor for a TA position or joining a research group; even making a student filming group on campus that could lead to a production company in future.
More mature adults may see these prospects as too risky: the idea of selling your car to pay for camera equipment, or overloading your courses and becoming a TA in order to get that coveted research position may appear to be likely to fail, but the developmental state of a college student may only simply see opportunity knocking at their door.
This is similar to a related concept called “optimism bias”, (although it is distinct from subjective invulnerability). It is this optimism bias that allows college students to navigate the often-maze-like structure of making the most of their college years and having the surety to pursue their goals, even if they are unlikely or treacherous.
This carries over to socialising, too: the idea of fraternity and sororities isn’t just for partying, but rather a chance to engage with a network of people who will help you out with a simple, secret handshake. Individuals deal with the rituals and extra work of a fraternity pledge process in order to have access to that network for the rest of their lives, and many utilise it appropriately even years after they have graduated…
However, along with all the good, the heightened risk for dangerous activities is still apparent, and many students unfortunately suffer the consequences of reality puncturing their personal fable.
Hazing activities that result in death or injury are the most overt, as well as students experiencing academic burnout.
Almost everyone who attended college/university has a story or two about being in a dangerous situation or sustaining an injury due to their own recklessness. A perfect example I recall is of a friend’s roommate, who on Halloween went downtown to the bars in nothing but a Batman mask, cape, and a pair of black Speedos. It ended up snowing that night and he became so inebriated that he did not return home until midday the next day, having spent the entire night and early morning outside in freezing cold weather while black out drunk.
It would have only been a coin flip to see him having died of hypothermia if he had fallen asleep, but yet he speaks of the story rather fondly – at least the parts he remembers. It’s a badge of honour; representing his return from the proverbial precipice. Likewise, for many, these experiences are just a result of the “wild days” of college, but truly they are the result of a “perfect storm” of developments that all culminate in those few years.
To conclude and reiterate, subjective invulnerability is a normal part of development for young adults.
It is not something that can be avoided, but each person experiences it differently and in different strengths. Some may find that their college years were rather uneventful, and yet others have no memory of it at all due to the high intensity lifestyle they exhibited at the time.
It is simply the result of our brains maturing at the rate they do, and with having a huge surge of personal freedoms that come along with college, while still lacking the maturity to handle them all appropriately. While it may motivate students to engage in reckless activity, mild or extreme, it also allows them to cope with the many compounding pressures that university life presents for their future. It allows them to have the mental surety to reach out and engage with the world knowing that much of what they do in college will have long-term impacts on their life.
Overall, one might look back on their college days and cringe, others might chuckle, but the way our brains mature is not changing anytime soon, so the wild days of university will likely stay a strong part of international cultures, social expectations, and storytelling.
References for further reading:
Barry, C. T., Pickard, J. D., & Ansel, L. L. (2009). The associations of adolescent invulnerability and narcissism with problem behaviors. Personality & Individual Differences, 47(6), 577–582. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.05.022
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Adolescent Health. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/adolescent-health.htm
Hill, P. L., Duggan, P. M., & Lapsley, D. K. (2012). Subjective Invulnerability, Risk Behavior, and Adjustment in Early Adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 32(4), 489–501. doi: 10.1177/0272431611400304
Lapsley, D. K., & Hill, P. L. (2010). Subjective Invulnerability, Optimism Bias and Adjustment in Emerging Adulthood. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 39(8), 847–857. doi:10.1007/s10964-009-9409-9
Ravert, R. D., Schwartz, S. J., Zamboanga, B. L., Kim, S. Y., Weisskirch, R. S., & Bersamin, M. (2009). Sensation seeking and danger invulnerability: Paths to college student risk-taking. Personality & Individual Differences, 47(7), 763–768. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.06.017
Turner, J. C., Leno, E. V., & Keller, A. (2013). Causes of Mortality Among American College Students: A Pilot Study. Journal of college student psychotherapy, 27(1), 31–42. doi:10.1080/87568225.2013.739022