Although delegated with the task of treating an ever-increasing student demand for mental health services, college counseling centers are not up to the task. These centers not only are operating from limited resources but are encumbered by a 60-year-old model of diagnosing and treating disorders. Moreover, institutions of higher learning can rightly claim they are in the education business, not the mental health business.
Rather than continue looking to counseling centers to deal with the crippling anxieties and depression that plague student bodies, students have an opportunity to find a common cause by taking responsibility for their own mental health with a peer support system. This support system would enable students to resolve the intrapersonal conflict that limits academic success and prevent student dropout.
The etiology of depression is not well understood. Stress is often cited as the leading cause, but a multitude of factors can contribute to stress, with none sufficient. Moreover, no studies have shown that a reduction in stress reduces the rate of depression.
Hippocrates, in the fifth century B.C., believed depression was caused by an excess of black bodily fluids. Cicero, 300 years later, postulated depression was the result of rage, fear, or grief. During the Middle Ages, the lack of moral rectitude and possession by demonic spirits were cited as the cause.
Since the 1990s, depression has been attributed to self-defeating, negative cognitions, which are sustained inaccurate and often negative thoughts about the self. These negative cognitions are measured by negative symptoms, which are the negative thoughts believed to be the cause of the depression. The problem is that these negative cognitions are seen as both the cause and the symptoms of depression, without an underlying theory of problem formation and change.
An alternative approach, PsychResilience Training (PRT), offers a brief, but effective intervention for the prevention and treatment of depression and anxiety disorders. PRT is based upon psychological resilience as a self-referential process that can be learned to maintain a positive sense of self under prolonged stress. It provides insight into debilitating anxieties and dysfunctional behaviors, enabling the student to address long-standing, unresolved anger and anxieties from an empowered, positive sense of self. The energy spent previously on containing negative thoughts now becomes energy available for positive pursuits.
The proposed etiology for psychosocial anxiety and depression involves a two-step process:
1. Young people are socialized to adopt values and norms that are dysfunctional for them as adults, which lead to unresolved intrapersonal conflict
2. Unresolved intrapersonal conflict gives rise to anxiety, depression, and a multitude of self-defeating behaviors.
Behavioral change is brought about by recognizing and strengthening one’s own values and norms, as well as owning up to and dealing with one’s unresolved anger from the past, whether justified or not.
Owning Up to Anger
Almost everyone carries suppressed anger. The problem with suppressed anger is that periodically, and often unexpectedly, the lid blows off, and uncontrollable rage surfaces. In spite of our rational will, the power of our angry feelings is temporarily in control.
Our rage may be completely out of proportion to the immediate situation, yet, along with this rage, we may momentarily experience a sense of personal liberation and exhilaration. This explosive power, of course, reflects our animal side. It is like a Bengal tiger pouncing out of a cage, with its massive paws, black, orange, and white stripes, and long, arched tail. Nearly everyone carries a tiger inside. The tiger is the part that has all the anger, yet also has all the fun.
Our tiger represents at a raw level our honest emotions, minus any restraints. We will want to liberate our honest feelings to take charge of our lives. Yet, it is important not just to liberate our tiger and allow him or her to run wild.
Limits need to be set. The tiger will not listen to the embedded voice of authority inside our heads, much less to the voice of authority outside our heads. The embedded voice of authority and the tiger have been at odds all of our lives. The two are incompatible and frequently in conflict, which manifests itself in periods of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Our own voice can be just as rational as the embedded voice of authority, but not limited to “either-or” choices. Our tiger exemplifies fun, love of life, and humanity, but cannot communicate (a tiger only purrs and growls) and is unable to behave rationally. When we connect the vitality of our tiger with the rational power of our own voice, nothing can stop us from finding solutions to our problems and being the best we can be.
The Tiger Metaphor
Student mental health will not significantly improve over the next 60 years by just coming up with more psychotherapies based upon the symptom-based model of mental illness. We need a self-empowering learning model based upon a new model of problem formation and change that can make a measurable impact on student mental health by addressing both acute stages of distress as well as prevention.
The distinguishing feature of PRT is its intuitive accessibility—nearly everyone can connect with his or her Tiger as a metaphor for one’s innermost feelings. "The Tiger metaphor" gives rise to openness and congeniality with others. How’s your tiger today? Let me hear from you and your tiger.
To obtain a brief copy of the PRT operating manual, please contact Dr. Mace.