An increasing number of high school and college students in the U.S. are struggling with mental health challenges.
The media is filled with articles about students experiencing high levels of stress on college campuses. More than 11 percent of college students have been diagnosed with anxiety in the past year and more than 10 percent reported being diagnosed with or treated for depression, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Demand for on-campus mental health counseling is increasing. Students report frustration that their mental health care needs are not met by school counseling centers which are understaffed and overwhelmed. Wait lists, appointment delays, restricted hours and limits on visits are common.
And sadly, suicides remain the 2nd leading cause of death on college campuses, with clusters of student deaths regularly in the news. Six student suicides happened at the University of Pennsylvania in an 18 month time period. There have been four student suicides at the College of William and Mary this academic year. Six student suicides have taken place at M.I.T. in the past 14 months. Peter Cronkite, age 22, the grandson of the late newscaster, Walter Cronkite, made the news when he took his life on April 26th, 2015, a few weeks before he was to graduate from Colby College.
Why is this happening?
Experts such as Dr. Victor Schwartz, the medical director of the Jed Foundation, point to the growth of stress among college students to the point where it impacts both well-being and their ability to function academically and socially. Schools such as Yale and William and Mary report that from ¼ to ½ of their student bodies make use during a given school year of on-campus counseling services.
A significant contributing factor to the decline in college student mental health appears to be an increase in self-imposed stress and the pressure to succeed that college and university students put on themselves.
The University of Pennsylvania (“Penn”) finds there is a common mind set among many of its students that they must be perfect in all things in order to achieve in college and in adult life. In 2014, after the series of student suicides mentioned above, Penn convened a task force to “examine the challenges confronting students that can affect their psychological health and well-being.”
The Task Force’s Report, issued in March, 2015, describes a student belief that “there is only one pathway to success that demands a near perfect academic record and demonstrated leadership in extracurricular activities”. This perception can cause “some students to be especially vulnerable when they experience setbacks”. Instead of growing from setbacks and challenges, these students may experience “distress” because their “resilience and life skills” have not been sufficiently developed prior to entering college.
That the level of competition ratchets up even further from high school to college can be a shock to student mental health. As the Penn Report states, “students arrive on campus having been at or near the top of their classes and find themselves surrounded by other high-achieving students. Significant transitions, like that from high school to college…can be very stressful.”
What Can Parents Do?
With so many students setting high academic and life achievement goals for themselves, what can parents do to ensure that their college kids stay as mentally healthy as possible?
(1) Foster Resilience and Life Skills
Parents need to work harder than ever to raise kids with sufficient resilience so that if they choose to become part of a highly competitive campus (or a highly competitive future workplace) they will not become unglued in inevitable and increasing high stress situations.
As the Penn report puts it: “We found that students often have trouble coping when they receive anything other than a perfect grade.”
Not all parents (looking in the mirror here), earn or have earned gold stars in the lesson of letting our kids learn from their own mistakes. We over-protect from failure, over-smooth every bump in the road to the detriment of their ability to acquire that recently so sought after quality of “grit”.
Our kids will develop resilience only if we allow them to experience the consequences of setbacks.
But it is also true – despite our very best parenting efforts, whether we over-coddle, under-coddle, or somewhat in between, that there will always be some kids who because of their own inherent natures are less-equipped than others to grow from bumps in the road.x
(2) Tell Our Kids That Their Academic and Life Choices Have Consequences
The college ranking systems, the ridiculously, and increasingly low admission rates to top colleges, the SAT/ACT/AP test prep industry, economic pressures to become big earners all contribute to a very stressful reality for a high school student who hears society’s message that the way to succeed is to get into the most elite of colleges and universities.
These same kids who work exceptionally hard during high school to be perfect in order to get admitted to college are finding themselves at top colleges where the re-sorting process starts all over again – all with deleterious impacts on their own mental health and well-being.
And it is highly unlikely that Penn or any similarly-situated college or university with top academics will suddenly decide to modify their highly selective admission standards. (the recognition that students should strive for balance, rather than perfection, in their high school resumes, would be a welcome, if wholly unexpected change.)
But parents can make a difference.
We have to responsibility to explicitly inform our kids that they have choices and that the choices they make will always have consequences.
If kids decide they need to take 5 AP courses in a single semester, that if they short-change their sleep, that if they overload their activity schedule, it is their own physical and mental health that will suffer. Our kids need us to tell them – because no one else will – what might happen to them if they choose to pursue a high stress path to success.
And if they are admitted to a college with a competitive campus culture, and if they choose to stay on that path, and want to push themselves as hard as they can to get the best summer internship, to get accepted by a top graduate school or land a prestige job, then our kids need to understand that their quest to achieve possibly unrealistic academic or life goals will be filled with bumps in the road, setbacks and that they must be resilient in dealing with them so that their vulnerability does not lead to emotional distress – or worse.
(3) Remind Our Kids It Is O.K. To Ask For Help
The stigma associated with seeking help for mental health concerns may be waning but many college students remain reluctant to seek help. They are more likely to talk to their friends before seeking professional counseling. Many still refrain from going to an on-campus counseling center because they fear being perceived as weak; they conclude, wrongly, that they are the only ones struggling and that their peers are doing just fine.
So parents need to remind their kids – and do so often – that seeking help is a sign of strength, not failure. Parents can also help by doing their own research as to on-campus resources and if they appear to be insufficient or over-loaded, to help their students find accessible and affordable off-campus resources instead.
Parents also must keep in touch with their kids, and if possible, with their friends, so that warning signs of possible mental health struggles are detected early. The earlier treatment is obtained, the better the results will be.
And if necessary, parents need to stay in touch with college administrators. Due to Federal higher education (FERPA) and medical (HIPAA) privacy laws, parents are often the very last to know if their student is struggling with his or her mental health. Parents must find out – ahead of time – under what circumstances, a college will contact them in order to discuss a child’s mental health.
(4) Be Supportive, Non-judgmental and Available – and Intervene When Necessary
Keep talking to your college kids even if you think they are not listening to you. Show them you are open, supportive, concerned – but that you won’t meddle or interfere with their own evolving independence.
But if their judgment is impaired by the onset of a serious mental health struggle, and they fail to get help in a possibly life-threatening situation, don’t hesitate, jump in a car, get on a plane, and get to their campus asap to help them find the assistance they need.
Scary stuff, isn’t this? But what increasing levels of stress are doing to our high school and college kids requires us as parents to not look away from the impact it has on our their mental health. We need to build their coping skills as best we can, encourage them to make realistically attainable academic and life choices and to seek help when they need it.
The increasingly fragile mental health of students on today’s college campuses makes demands on parents too.
Other related articles (by Nancy Wolf) you should read:
Nancy Wolf is a lawyer with experience as a parent coach, young adult mental health advocate, and college counselor. She is a graduate of Smith College, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, and George Washington University Law School. Nancy works with parents, of young adults with mental health conditions, to plan for college and manage mental health challenges while in college. As a parent of a young adult who has had mental health challenges for a number of years, Nancy has personal experience dealing with these issues. Read more of her writings at Your Bridge Forward. Nancy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.