The Rapidly Emerging Psychiatric Fragility of Today’s Youth

Are educational institutions becoming psychiatric facilities?

Posted Feb 01, 2018

used with permission by pixabay
Source: used with permission by pixabay

Much has been written, researched, and spoken about the uptick in anxiety, depression, and attention deficit troubles among youth. Correspondingly, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students who have disability accommodations for psychiatric diagnoses.  As a college professor for over a quarter of a century, this disturbing trend has been remarkable, and rapid! For example, during previous years I might have had one or two students with disability accommodations in my college courses (usually associated with documented learning disabilities such as dyslexia) where students are typically entitled to extra time on exams, the benefits of a note taker, the use of their laptop in class, or the accommodation of having a private room, rather than a classroom setting, for exam taking. This past academic term, I had a third of my students (over a dozen or more) with these accommodations and all of them, as far as I could tell, were for psychiatric reasons (e.g., anxiety, depression, attention deficits). Whenever I have mentioned this emerging trend among colleagues at my university as well as other universities across the land, an animated conversation typically ensues where it is clear that other professors are observing and struggling with the same dramatic turn of events.  Furthermore, these trends are not only found among college students but among high school teens and even graduate and professional school students, including those from top tier institutions.

Many experts attribute these alarming developments to a confluence of factors that include the addictive use and overwhelming influence of smart phones and social media (especially since about 2012 when they became popular and adopted by most people in the USA), unrealistically high expectations during elementary and secondary schools with pressure to perform at unreasonably high levels of success (e.g., taking numerous Advanced Placement courses, earning top scores on standardized testing, being a star athlete, and extraordinary public service like starting an orphanage in a third world country in order to get admitted to a decent college), and the coddling of our youth with concerns about harming their perceived fragile self-esteem. Additionally, the medicalization of everything with quick diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and attention deficit by pediatricians and other health care professionals while offering pharmaceutical interventions rather than evidence based best practices that typically include cognitive behavioral approaches make matters much worse.  I have heard too many stories of students seeing a doctor for a 10-15 minute appointment and walking out with a psychiatric diagnosis, a prescription for medication, and a statement that they qualify for disability resources at school.

There are no simple answers to these emerging developments given the influence of family and educational pressures, technological advances, over engagement with smart phones and social media, and the marketing efforts of the pharmaceutical industry and medical establishments that may all collide to help create and reinforce anxious, depressed, and attention deficient youth. A focus on building resiliency, grit, and developing good stress management tools is critical to avoid turning our institutions of higher education into psychiatric facilities.  Psychiatric disorders are, of course, real but what is truly remarkable is the amazing increase in those diagnosed with these mostly mood and attention disorders and their resulting desire for classroom accommodations.

For further information see the American Psychological Association's material on stress management as well as the references listed below. 

So, what do you think?

Copyright 2018, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

References

Bruni, F. (2016). Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. NY: Hachette Book Group. 

Lythcott-Haim, J. (2016). How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success Paperback. NY: St. Martin's Press.

Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us. NY: Atria Books.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. NY: HarperCollins.

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