photo courtesy of theconversation.com
One common reaction to hearing about the topic of adolescent mental health is that it's about someone else's kid. Something like: "My son/daughter doesn't have any issues in that area". Unfortunately, the statistics for increasing mental health issues are cause for concern for many parents.
"Student mental health distress has escalated to high levels nationally. The American College Health Association found in 2019 that over the past year, 87% of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, 66% felt overwhelming anxiety, 56% felt things were hopeless and 13% seriously considered suicide. Contributing factors include distressing and traumatic circumstances during college, such as assault, in addition to academic performance demands." (sources: conversation.com and the American College Health Association)
The challenge is clear. In 2018, researchers who surveyed almost 14,000 first-year college students (in eight countries) found that 35% struggled with a mental illness, particularly depression or anxiety. Here in the U.S., college students seeking mental health services report that anxiety is their main concern—and it is on the rise. (source: The Greater Good Magazine )
Over the past decade there is increasing concern about the mental health of college students. Following close behind is the focus on mental health at the high school level and even younger. The “race to nowhere” phenomenon is over ten years old and triggered the start of a national movement to better understand students and the pressures that surround them in their daily lives.
Let's start by focusing on the high school to college timeframe.
Is the transition to college different today?
The transition to college has been difficult for most students at some time. Leaving a comforting and supportive environment for the unknown can be either liberating or terrifying. At the more competitive colleges, there can be an even greater shock to the system. The best of the best are now side-by-side in one big fishbowl—extraordinary accomplishments are now viewed as commonplace. It’s hard to be the best if your classmates are also the best in any quantifiable category. In addition, there are heightened expectations from parents who are Baby Boomers.
As a part of our college application essay interview, I ask students many questions to better understand what will distinguish them from their peer group. One of those questions is: What is your favorite place? The response I most often hear is, "my room” or “my house.” As a Baby Boomer growing up in our relatively small ranch house with one bathroom, their answer surprises me. For me, it was anything but my room. I grew up in an era where anything but home was where you wanted to be. So, it is telling that today's high school and college students are most comfortable at home. This is in sync with the times: with the ability to text, chat or play games with someone online, there’s no need to leave home anymore.
However, there are other factors as well that could impact a student's emotional wellness while transitioning to college. Specifically, if they were used to getting daily or weekly tutoring or parental support with their homework. If that element is reduced or eliminated, the impact could be huge. So, it is understandable that a student that is experiencing their first time “on their own” might struggle academically. They probably won't find a teacher willing to give extra credit problems to boost up their GPA.
Another factor is the large range of options for clubs, activities and distractions from the college town or city. Not to mention the wide range in academic majors and minors. How do they choose what to do or study? Are they passing a quad with only students, or is their walk from dorm to class on a busy and large city street?
Of course, the obvious main transition is that mom and dad aren't there to wake them up in the morning, ask about their homework or who they might be friends with. Similarly, depending on their housing situation, they could either feel supported by rooming with the perfect listener or alienated by rooming with the perfect stranger.
What is "Normal" versus "Concerning"?
It is normal for students to get upset, call home, change their behaviors, etc. What is seriously concerning is when the student, who has a flawless academic history, stops going to class and shows a significant downward trend on their academic GPA.
If there is a significant, life-altering change, the first question that is often posed is whether substance abuse has entered into the equation as a coping mechanism. But I would argue that whether that is a factor is not as important as knowing what the emotional health of that student was in high school.
The seeds of many student struggles in college begin well before the student arrives on campus. What's changed in high school? There are now more organized programs, so most of the student's time is structured. Many communities frown upon large group gatherings. More students are engaged with tutors—more phone and online time, less actual conversations. When they are not engaged in structured programs, it is easier to get disconnected and isolated.
What are high schools doing to prepare students throughout high school and beyond?
Decades ago, health was defined in middle and high schools by physical education and health education (commonly referred to as "Sex Education"). A healthy body would help students as they mature. And on a side note, parents were committed to avoid teenage pregnancy. For many years, mental health was not even discussed.
But today, the shift in high school is to Mindfulness, Emotional Intelligence, Wellness, and Emotional Well-Being. While it is great that this motion is occurring, it has emerged only in response to the rise in mental health issues.
Looking back: what now shows up as warning signs in the rear-view mirror.
What are the signs that could appear in high school? How did the student deal with pressure? How did they adjust to new situations? How did they react to a peer of equal ability? Was there even one that they would consider to be equal in academics or in talent areas? Were there emotional outbursts or depression-related behaviors that were discounted? Were they able to make decisions on their own or did they depend on their parents too much?
When I work with high school students, there are students that, as bright as they are, will never schedule their sessions on their own. These are the students who have the greatest chance to hit the wall when they get to college. Compare that to the students who, at a relatively early age, take ownership of their schedules and are responsible for their lives. As burdensome as it may be for the high schooler, those that schedule demonstrate control and planning.
At a high school event that I attended at my son's high school, I was struck by a twenty-something describing how as a top athlete she burned herself out. Everyone assumed that she would be a top athlete in college. But while she was so into her sport(s) in high school, she missed out on other things available. So, by the time she got to college, she dropped sports and worked to catch up on her childhood. To others, this looked like someone having an emotional breakdown, but for her it was about exercising freedom and finally doing what she wanted to do.
The pressures on students are pervasive; we are taught via societal pressure that in order to land the best job after graduate school, we must have great grades throughout grad school, college, high school, middle school, elementary school. Basically, there is no room for failure and we are expected to proceed from A to B to C to D to E, etc. No room for short cuts or mistakes of any kind. 9 AP classes are better than 6 AP classes. Better do community service or you won't get into college. Many students either don't have time for lunch or have so little that there isn't even time to eat and socially engage with their peers. And as far as sleep, well, many students are clearly sleep-deprived. It is no wonder that this fast-paced world has little time for problems. So, what if a student is struggling with being overwhelmed and unsure of their ability to keep up and succeed?
One of the best gifts a parent can give their son or daughter:
A perspective that life's successes are not serial in nature, but more of curved road or roller coaster. Rather than assuming their next step, check in with them to get excited on their own about their choices for the future. Make sure that there is enough time to reasonably get everything done. Are the expectations achievable? Is the student afraid to tell their parents that they didn't get it done or don't know how they are going to get it done?
What are colleges doing about mental health on their campuses?
"Over half of presidents said they need additional tools to help them address college student mental health on campus."
... “We need training to be able to identify someone who may be experiencing a mental health episode or breakdown and strategies to assist that individual,” one president wrote.
“We need tools to help students develop resiliency and coping strategies.”
As student mental health concerns continue to rise, and as higher education continues to wrestle with the complexity and severity of these issues, campuses remain in a position to support students who may be struggling. This is not a new role for institutions, but as these issues evolve, it becomes more important that assistance for students is available outside of counseling centers. The well-being of students—both inside and outside the classroom—should be the concern of all on campus. As one president wrote, “We can’t just solve this by hiring more counselors.”
Regarding specific programs to get in front of the mental health issues on campuses, many colleges have scheduled their orientation programs right after high school graduation in June and July. They want students to begin their transition to college as early as possible to get rid of any apprehension and anxiety that might develop over the summer. This is even more important for some high school students that finish their senior year right after AP season and are effectively done with school in May.
Regarding the student-parent interaction, the question the parent should ask themselves:
What cost is there in a son/daughter satisfying the parent vs. satisfying themselves.
A few years ago I was approached to help a student after she was not invited back to her college for the spring term of her freshman year. At this point, she was now on medication and worked at a local movie theater instead of attending classes. I had never met her and I was curious as to what happened. Her situation was a bit unusual; usually a student would receive a warning, not a dismissal. On my first meeting I found out that she had been admitted to a number of very selective institutions, but that during the fall, about five weeks into the semester, she just stopped going to classes. I could not reconcile why this bright student had wound up at the school she flunked out from after hearing the other schools to which she had applied and gained admittance. I sensed that it was a money issue, but I still needed to get to the core reason as to why she gave up. After asking her mom to leave the room so I could talk privately, I asked her one question: “When did you know it wasn’t the right fit?” She answered, “On the tour”. Clearly this one example doesn’t explain the breadth and depth of the mental health issue for college students, but it does provide valuable insight as to how powerful the influence of satisfying a parent is in contributing to the happiness and success of students. This student would rather sacrifice her own needs than disappoint her parents. The irony of course is that she disappointed her parents anyway and suffered herself. It’s not that she wouldn’t learn, grow and move on from this experience, it was just unfortunate how it played out.
What prompted me to write this article was that whereas the story above used to be an “outlier”, I have started to see a pattern develop. I have been asked to help more students that have struggled at their first college and it is more than just not liking their major or their roommate. The statistics that are described at the beginning of this article are aligning with our students’ experiences.
To be fair, I have seen signs when working with students on their college essay applications that point to things out of whack with the rest of their “story” and my inclination has been that “they will work through it”. So, it is easy to see how some underlying problems will be masked and not addressed by the student or parent. And that is what makes the college transition something to which we all should pay very close attention.
It is hard to predict the future with all the dynamic forces that enter into any single student's environment. The best that can be done is to be aware that the transition to college is a personal adjustment and what may appear on the surface as smooth and ideal could be masking some broader and deeper issues.
Freshman year of college is thought to be the big adjustment year. Certainly, this is true for change in academic discipline, housing, student population and demographics. But the advantage of freshman year is that there is a whole structure and set of programs to deal with the change. Sophomore year can be the more delicate time period. Whereas freshmen are guided, sophomore students are expected to know what to do. Majors are needed to be locked in at most schools. The spotlight is rarely on the Sophomore student.
From a parental perspective, stay in touch in a way that gives your son/daughter enough independence to not feel micromanaged, but still gives them an open line of communication with you. If you see a change in the frequency of communication, check in with them and allow them to vent without any judgment or conditions. It can make a powerful difference in their life and yours as well.
About the author:
Neal Schwartz is the owner of College Planning of Westchester and has worked with over 1,000 students in middle and high school and college over a 15-year period. His perspective comes from students sharing their unfiltered dreams and concerns in a supportive environment.
More Data Resources on the topic:
Want to learn more about the high school perspective on mental health, read this post from the National Assn. of Secondary School principals. It covers the limited capacity to address mental health issues, the reduction in funding, stigma surrounding mental health issues and Death by suicide statistics.
Parents are advised to give "subtle support". How parents can help high-achieving adolescents through ups and downs. Read this blog post by Dr. Gary Glass
Addressing Mental Health Challenges on College Compuses (Some powerful data and approaches in this Forbes article)
Thee mental health crisis on campus and how colleges can fix it. (A few suggestions)
Colleges get proactive in addressing depression on campus. (NY Times article)
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