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Mental Health Issues and College-Age Millennials

Teaching our youth how to deal with emotional upset.

Alex Jones/unsplash
Source: Alex Jones/unsplash

I adore millennials. By and large, they are my favorite demographic to work with in therapy. This fact makes me unpopular in certain circles. Sometimes the admission is met with inquisitive looks, or eye-rolling, or the occasional contemptuous comment. “Just what is it you find so endearing? Is it the entitlement, the gluten-free everything, or the don’t-criticize-me-or-I-may-break, traits?”

Projections aside, the 20 and early 30-somethings don’t need me to defend them; Mom and Dad are suited up 24-7 for that battle. I appreciate this generation because, generally speaking, they are kind, well-mannered, non-materialistic, ecologically savvy and charitable. Millennials also come with baggage, as every generation of emerging adults has before them.

In this day and age of around-the-clock access to news and social media, one would be hard-pressed not to notice that the mental health of millennials is in a precarious state: College students who struggle with psychological crises, self-regulation, adversity, unhealthy relationships, self-destructive behaviors, and falling apart over less-than perfect academic and athletic performances.

So why do young people flounder with problem-solving and coping with stress in such large numbers? What is behind the high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and self-injurious behaviors? Popular scapegoats include: The dire economy, greedy, over-priced colleges and universities, society’s obsession with success, academic overachieving and emotional underachieving, and topping the list: The Helicopter Parenting Hall of Shame.

Finger pointing aside, the point of this article is to focus on solutions and strategies to build resilience and incorporate stress-hardy practices for today’s college kids, and beyond. Here are several suggestions:

1. Step away from the helicopters. Nothing against Mom and Dad, but let’s get real, hovering in the name of protection isn’t working so well, is it? A 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students who experienced helicopter parenting reported higher levels of depression and use of antidepressant medications. When parents hover, children are not able to master autonomy and competence.

A crucial childhood lesson is learning that the world is basically a safe place, where the majority of people possess good-will. This important tenet reinforces that even when bad things happen, life generally turns out okay. And so will you. Succinctly stated — problems are inevitable, but suffering is optional. While overparenting is born from the best of intentions, Mom and Dad’s primary job is to raise independent, compassionate, and emotionally competent children.

CliffsNotes: Thank your parents for all the wonderful things they’ve done for you. Then kindly ask them to step back so you can focus on forging your own identity. Even if this includes failing.

2. Banish 'perfection' from your vernacular. There is no such thing as effortless excellence, even if your classmate who aced the Quantitative Political Analysis midterm would like you to think differently. The formula for success is as old as Harvard University: Consistent hard work and execution. Humility never hurts, either. Believing you can achieve perfection is to hold rigid and concrete beliefs — hallmarks of an anxious mind. The all-or-nothing, impossibly high standards of perfectionism often mean that you’re unhappy even when success is attained.

CliffsNotes: Embrace an open mind where flexible thinking and shades of gray rule the roost.

3. Rewire your happiness template. Contrary to popular belief, happiness is not necessarily driven by pleasure. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, happiness consists of three dimensions: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life.

The Pleasant Life is concerned with increasing the quantity of pleasurable activities you experience daily. The Good Life is achieved through discovering your unique virtues and strengths, and employing them creatively to enhance your life. Not surprisingly, a surefire method to nourishing your unique strengths is through contributing to the happiness of the greater good. The Meaningful Life, is where a deep sense of fulfillment is discovered by utilizing unique strengths to serve others.

CliffsNotes: Share your gifts. Celebrate the fact that you’re young, healthy, smart, vibrant, and creative. Reaching out to others in need helps put life in perspective. Because #gratitude.

4. Stay here. Mindfulness-based practices are all the rage on college campuses now, and with good reason. Mindfulness helps you become aware of yourself in ways that lead to stress reduction and academic, social and workplace happiness. It also improves your ability to collaborate effectively, and bolsters your physical and mental wellness. Most importantly, mindfulness means you’re present and able to deal with today’s challenges. Reliving your Advanced Chemistry accolades from high school will not change the “B” you got in Physics today (not that anything less than an “A” means much in the grand scheme of life, anyway).

CliffsNotes: The here-and-now is where it’s at. Living in the past leads to depression, while worrying about the future contributes to anxiety.

5. Learn the relationship basics. “The culture of campus dating is broken...or at least broken-ish. And I think it's because we are a generation frightened of letting ourselves be emotionally vulnerable, addicted to communicating by text, and as a result, neglecting to treat each other with respect,” says Charlotte Lieberman, writer and recent Harvard graduate.

Everyone struggles with establishing relationships, especially young people. Common dilemmas include, how do you handle conflict without overreacting?; how do you endure a breakup without falling apart?; and how can you communicate your feelings honestly without appearing desperate?

CliffsNotes: Don’t try so hard not to care. Humans are wired to connect, and nobody is immune to the unique, devastating, and heart-wrenching pain of romantic rejection. Ever. Navigating sex and relationships takes a lot of work. The good news is you have years to practice polishing your skill set.

6. Differentiate between problems and catastrophes. The boyfriend who didn’t respond to your text over the weekend may be problematic, but believing this automatically signals your relationship is caput, is to succumb to catastrophic thinking. Anxiety frequently causes your mind to obsess over a problem. When this happens, you’re thinking about the problem rather than a solution. And all the while the problem grows until it seems like the end of the world. That “C” in English Literature is no longer an average grade, but a guarantee of academic suspension or dismissal.

CliffsNotes: Reframing maladaptive thoughts is key to changing the anxious response. Unhealthy thoughts lead to unhealthy feelings, which lead to unhealthy behaviors. The good news is that you can control your thoughts, so they don’t manage you. This in-depth article teaches you to rewire your thought process, and allows you to rationally think through overwhelming emotions.

7. Pay attention to the physical cues of stress: When you’re stressed, your body’s fight-or-flight response goes into overdrive and signals to your brain that danger is near. Before you know it, you’re in full-blown panic mode. Common physiological responses include a rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, headache, stomach ache, dizziness, and fatigue.

CliffsNotes: Tackling overwhelming anxious and depressive symptoms is a two-fold process (or three-fold if you’re taking psychiatric medications), which starts with calming your body so your brain can slow down and focus on problem-solving strategies. This article contains several exercises to calm the mind and body. This one reviews how to de-escalate from a panic attack.

8. Pay attention to the psychological cues of stress: Depression and anxiety are real. In 2011, the National College Health Assessment found that about 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some time in the past year. Often the stress of college causes students to experience the signs and symptoms of mental disorders for the first time. Everyone goes through slumps, but they usually last a few days or less.  Chronic feelings of lacking motivation, low energy, thinking you’re going crazy, extreme sadness, lacking hope, and isolation — “I’m the only one going through this” — are serious signs that you may be suffering from depression or anxiety.

CliffsNotes: Most colleges offer free or low-cost mental health services to students. Depression and anxiety are medical illnesses and treatments can be very effective. Early diagnosis and treatment of depression and anxiety can relieve symptoms, prevent depression and anxiety from returning, and help you succeed in college, and beyond.

9. Limit exposure to Insta-happy images. It’s so easy to get caught up in everyone else’s fabulous social media life. But pictures tell a thousand words, and ‘photoshop,’ ‘edited reality,’ ‘dozens of deleted tries,’ and ‘insecurity’ are too often missed when scrolling though updates. It would be great if we all told the truth on social media, but that’s as likely as the Kardashians swapping selfies for self-awareness updates.

CliffsNotes: Have a healthy skepticism about what others post on social media. Avoid visiting sites when feeling sad, angry, hungry, bored or insecure. Try and limit your screen time to a few visits per day, at most. As a general rule, think moderation.

10. Fall in love with problem-solving. Put that intrepid, competitive spirit that got you into college to good use by overcoming day-to-day stressors. When you’re the big fish in the little pond, life is easy. The true test of mental grit is how well you deal with adversity.

CliffsNotes: Rather than fret over comparing yourself to your more accomplished peers, take a deep breath, make a plan, and get to work.

11. Be responsible about drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reports than 4 out of 5 college students drink alcohol. According to the National Institute of Health,1,825 college students die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries. More than 690,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, and nearly 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

CliffsNotes: College drinking is a serious, complex problem. If you have concerns about alcohol, seek guidance from your parents, your academic adviser or another faculty member, your school’s counseling services, your doctor, or another trusted person.

12. Tolerate time. Digital natives are accustomed to immediate gratification. It’s one thing to save time by pre-ordering your caffè latte, but another to expect this convenience will extend to other domains. The real world still largely communicates in-person and most interactions are not text-based.

CliffsNotes: Use “empty spaces” of time to self-regulate with deep-breathing to slow your body and mind, become curious about your surroundings, be okay with boredom, and let go of the idea that you have to control everything. In short, learn to cultivate relaxation.


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Copyright 2015 Linda Esposito, LCSW