In his excellent blogpost on declining resilience in college students, psychologist Peter Gray quotes a report by Robin Wilson from the Chronicle of Higher Education where she wrote that an epidemic of overwhelming demand is swamping college mental health care systems.
"Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such illnesses. . . . Many others, though, are struggling with what campus counselors say are the usual stresses of college life: bad grades, breakups, being on their own for the first time. . ..”
I'm unhappy...Give me a pill!
Like adults in our society, many, far too many, students and even teenagers currently are taking "medication for such illnesses." What's wrong with that line of thinking?
First of all, emotional distress is not an illness. While schizophrenia or manic episodes are true mental illnesses, negative emotions such as depression (discouragement) and anxiety (fear in response to circumstances that look like they could cause a threat to your well-being) are appropriate responses to challenging situations. They arise not because you are "ill" but rather to alert you to a problem that merits your attention.
Second, the idea that medication, taking a pill, is an appropriate response to bad grades, breakups and other common college student "problems in living" is sad indeed.
I wrote my forth-coming book (on Amazon now for pre-orders) Prescriptions Without Pills to offer self-help and counseling strategies to counter the prevailing wisdom that taking pills is an appropriate response to negative emotions that arise in challenging situations.
Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More will be swimming against a strong tide. Drug companies pour huge sums of money into advertising these days. Too many times in the average TV-watcher's typical week, advertisements barrage viewers with the message that for emotional relief, a pill is the answer. In fact however, far better solutions that pills exist, including for college students who feel they need help with negative emotions.
What alternatives are preferable to pills for easing emotional distress?
For starters, if you want to reduce feelings of distress, begin by getting more sleep. When college students sign up for too much at school, or hang out too late in the dorm, they pay the price in sleep deficits. Sleep deficits quickly bring on emotional brittleness.
Then, try talking with a counselor. Even just a session or two can offer significant help. Unfortunately though, with so many students feeling distressed, many college counseling services are experiencing overload and therefore may have extended waits for first appointments.
Peer counseling may be an alternative, and often impressively effective, option. When my eldest daughter was in college, I gave a brief workshop on basic counseling principles to her fellow student peer counselors. I was greatly impressed with the rapidity at which these bright young adults could learn basic skills for helping peers in need.
At the same time, an old-fashioned and still-important solution to troubles also exists. If you are struggling emotionally, talk it over with a family member or friend. Even without a specific training course, most reasonably emotionally-solid friends and college roommates often can offer a sympathetic and very helpful ear.
What can a friend, or family member, do?
The main keys to being a helpful person are relatively straight-forward: be interested, listen appreciatively, and ask the next question. "What was your concern when that happened?" "What do you want at this point?" "What options can you see for getting there?"
Helpers needn't come up with solutions. Their main role is to ask questions, especially open-ended questions that begin with What or How. Questions help the person with the problem to think their way through to finding their own solutions. Sometimes also a helpful friend or family member may be able to offer further information, again so that the person with the problem can be better able to figure out response options.
If you want to be even more helpful when you have a friend in need, do check out Prescriptions Without Pills for additional ideas. The book suggests a wide range of self-help options, many of which can be all the more effective if a friend or family member pitches in.
And if you are the one who is feeling distressed...
The bottom line is that neither pills nor professional help are the only, or even necessarily the best, directions for college students to turn when they run into hurdles. Consider first taking a deep breath. Then look squarely and calmly at the problem, clarify your concerns, and brainstorm on solutions. Find a friend to join you in the process--and odds are good that you will emerge feeling stronger, relieved, and significantly happier.
Dr. Heitler's book on what to do when you feel distressed, which will be out in early 2016, is Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More.