Shouldn’t We Start Talking About Mental Health Issues on Campus?
February 18th, 2020
When I was in college there was little talk and, frankly, little evidence of mental health issues on campus. There were a few students who “lost it” in some very public ways that were discussed but, honestly, it was a rare topic. There was much more concern over alcohol and drug use. Granted, I entered college a half century ago. It was 1978 when I drove on campus as a freshman. Just to set the scene, we didn’t have personal computers, you could still pay a friend to type your hand-written notes into a term paper and cell phones/car phones were for the super wealthy. Growing up back then was different. Play dates weren’t arranged, you got home after school and found a group of friends to hang out with and you went outside. My mom would go out into the front yard and whistle for us, and like Pavlov’s Dogs, we would come running. Searching my memory, I have little recollections of mass shootings or frequent child abductions. It was a very different time.
Before we get too far into this topic there are two things that I need to make clear. My educational background is not in psychology or the health sciences at all. For me, there have been no advanced degrees such as a masters, PhD, or MD. Secondly, we must acknowledge there is a difference between mental illness and a lack of coping skills. Mental illness often relates to a chemical imbalance where as coping skills are more of a learned behavior. It is my firm belief that more kids today are put on medication to deal with behavioral issues as opposed to true mental health challenges. Perhaps, incorrectly, I have lumped them together. I mean no disrespect in either case, my only goal here is to encourage open discussions on this important topic.
Over the past year, I have talked to a lot of my friends/clients in the world of higher ed. It would be a stretch to say that there is 100% agreement, but mention mental health and a lack of coping skills in college students today and there is usually agreement amongst those folks that these are major issues on campus everywhere today. Transports for alcohol related incidents are still happening but some schools are transporting an alarming number of students for mental health related issues. When I originally started this article, I was searching for the root cause, and to be frank, someone to blame for the situation. After all, from where I sit there are a lot of folks to blame. Should we blame the parents for all of this? How about assigning blame to the colleges and universities who admit these students and then fail to properly support them? What about the students themselves? What, if any, culpability do they have? As you can see, there is no shortage of potential targets.
Let’s start with helicopter parents. Helicopter parents are always hovering over their kids, whether literally or figuratively, providing this 24/7 safety net or cocoon. They have complete control over their children’s lives; when they eat, when they sleep and when and where they go. For some parents, every day needs to be scripted to the minute; academics, athletics, music practice, mealtimes, playtimes, and of course screen times are all monitored and properly slotted. Kids no longer think for themselves.
Now a new term is surfacing, Snowplow Parents. They are not only ever-present, but they push obstacles out of their kids’ way. What they don’t see is the potential for long term damage. These kids simply don’t know how to problem solve because they’ve never had to do it before. In my opinion, with all their good intentions, snowplow parents are setting their kids up to fail, and they don’t even realize it. When these kids get to college, they have very limited or no coping skills and what we are seeing on campus today is a generation of young people having panic and anxiety attacks and unable to function when challenged. Not an ideal situation for anyone. As they get older the expectations from others will be that they are able to problem solve and take responsibility, as well as constructive criticism, and grow from it.
What about the colleges? When you talk to some of the folks in residential life and education, they will confess they have their hands full with student with mental health issues and often don’t know where to turn. Counseling services for students, without life threatening issues, can be more than a two week wait for an appointment. A very long time for someone struggling now. Many of the people “on the ground” on these campuses feel overwhelmed and under equipped to deal with these students and the sheer volume of the problems. With declining enrollment and less money for resources, colleges are in a tough spot, but this issue can no longer be ignored on campus.
What about the students themselves? Do they not need to shoulder any of the blame for this situation? After all, they are young adults, in some cases, living on their own. Are they not responsible for their own actions? At this point it is safe to assume that they understand right from wrong, but how much of this is their fault? One thing that seems to be happening on a lot of college campuses is that many students claim a need for an emotional support animal. Their “need” is a desire to bring the family pet to campus. Unfortunately, this belittles some of those students that have and need legitimate emotional support animals.
As I worked through this article and dug into all the facets of this growing epidemic, it became clearer to me that instead of placing blame, we need to concentrate on finding some solutions.
More than likely these will fall on deaf ears but perhaps it will start a discussion somewhere.
Here are just a few thoughts.
Parents, let your kids fail. It is my firm belief that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. For years, I have said that I have learned far more from failure than from success.
Allow kids to have unscheduled, unsupervised time with friends, preferably outside. Some people live in a location that they believe this to be impossible and it may in fact be the case, but If at all possible, it will be worth it.
Park the Snowplow. We need obstacles as part of our growth process. Being a parent myself, I know it is hard to see our kids struggle. One of my kids has some learning challenges that he has struggled with for years. When he went to college he chose not to take many of the accommodations that he was entitled to. He didn’t want to be different and he struggled mightily. Over time, he took some of the accommodations in order to basically survive. It was painful to watch but today he is very accomplished in many ways, including becoming a published writer.
Schools, provide appropriate support for the students that you are admitting and the training and education for the ground staff that are admitting them. To allow them to flounder is neither beneficial to the students or your staff.
Parents and students, please reveal any medical conditions that you are dealing with and any prescriptions that you are on. It would be great to say that we are a much more enlightened society and there is no stigma attached to mental illness anymore but that isn’t true. What I do believe is that the more we talk about it the more we grow. You also want to make sure that your child receives the best possible care. Information for those on campus is crucial to providing the best care possible.
Whose fault is it? Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. Let’s come together and find solutions to solve this issue and stop the stigma around mental health.
About the Author
Ken Abrahams has a BA in Sociology from Connecticut College and has no advanced degrees in medicine or psychology. What is offered here are his opinions and observations. He spends a lot of time working with college students and their advisors. If you are struggling with issues and you are a college student, there is help on campus. If you are not a college student or don’t live on campus, there are many services available in your community.
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