Thursday, October 29, 2009

Campus Mental Health and False Urgency

NPR had a series last week about mental health on college campuses and we've been getting a similar push here. Counseling services at colleges and universities across the country are getting clobbered. Several explanations have been proposed. One, is that the success of psychotropic medications have made it possible for students who in the past would have been unable to attend college to do so, meaning that students who are being treated for all sorts of psychological issues are being integrated into campus cultures at rates far beyond anything that had been seen. Others reverse the cart and the horse, that students are getting diagnosed at a higher rate and that the stigma has been greatly reduced making it more likely that they would have been treated by a mental health professional or would seek treatment. This camp is divided between those who contend that we are better at diagnosing problems and those who argue that we overdiagnose and over treat, especially with medication.

But there's a third line, that while students may or may not be coming to campus with higher rates of psychological concerns, we are creating them at a higher rate on our campuses. Students come with more weight on their shoulders from home. There is a deep sense of class insecurity because parents are worried that their kids will fall out of the comfort of middle class life if they don't keep up. Students bear this burden while the profs ratchet it up. I don't know if it's always been true, but there's a strong sense among faculty that students do not know how to properly prepare each day for college level work, that they do homework assignments, but really don't know how to study. As a result professors feel like they need to create a false sense of urgency, threatening draconian consequences to motivate students. The combination of the threats from the parents and instructors regularly creates a horribly unhealthy world for our college-bound kids.

You see it in even the most mundane aspects of advising. Students who want to drop a class and who should drop a class are made to feel that dropping is quitting and quitting makes you a loser and being a loser will destroy your life, so rather than do the rational thing and jettison a course from your schedule that you don't want or weren't prepared for yet in order to take it again when the time is right, they internalize it as a character flaw. They dread coming to you because they see it as a cross between betrayal and admission of vice. Of course, profs don't care that much. We don't think any different of students who drop and often the next semester. We see LOTS of students and, more than likely, we've completely forgotten whether you finished or not and will say hi as we pass you in exactly the same way.

But the students are frightened unnecessarily and this is only a simple example. We have students coming to class with flu-like symptoms because we're so afraid of slacking that we've beaten into thinking that missing class is a mortal sin. I have students writing bizarre e-mails about trying to speed back from funerals and being with their mom who is getting treatment for cancer in order to not miss class or a deadline for an assignment that I wasn't going to begin to grade until the weekend anyway. They live in a bizarro world of stress that has no correlation with reality because we are so afraid that they will have their pudding without eating their meat.

We do have an extended adolescence in contemporary society. Our college students are in many ways still kids. But the false construction of the collegiate world seems fraught with unhealthy elements that needn't be there and I wonder whether they are an operative factor in the rise in mental health concerns on today's campuses.