Millenials and Generation Z (“iGen”) are more talkative about mental health than any other generation. Yet solely talking about our issues doesn’t change anything. We may show up for therapy once a week, or once a month. We get along swimmingly with our therapist, and we walk away with great solution-focused tactics that we role played in session. When we’re smacked in the face by adversity though, we’re nearly paralyzed. We’re avoidant. We’re in complete denial, and depending on the situation we might let it get so bad that we have to be rescued. Literally. Yes, I’m completely generalizing and catastrophizing. And at the same time, the elephant in the room is that there’s a truth to what is being said.
The most common diagnosis, whether self-diagnosed or not, are anxiety and depression. No matter your professional role in working with adolescents, you see this showing up very differently in young people. You might ask what can be attributed to these issues? Well, we can certainly make assumptions. Social media? Absolutely! Our brains are still developing and when we see other people doing [what appears to be] more adventurous and risk-taking behaviors, we naturally want to one-up them. Read: impulsive without thought to consequence. Or we judge ourselves for the lives we’re living as being “less-than.” Read: depressed. Or, we feel the stress and pressure to stay on track academically because all our peers are managing to get straight A’s at another college and miraculously manage to party several nights a week as well. Read: anxiety, perfectionism, and substance abuse. Aside from social media, you might see two pretty common presentations as well. One example being a young person who was outgoing and engaged and now suddenly withdrawn. Read: trauma. Or the young student who’s parent has stepped in to every situation to help ease any barriers they may experience. This could include reading a college essay where your gut tells you the parents wrote it. Or the parent who has been in touch with you numerous times asking for clarification or whatever it is you do with the adolescent (Math Teacher, Coach, etc.) and wanting to also pass judgement and express concerns – constantly. Read: “Snow Plow Parenting.” You know what I don’t love about absolutes or assumptions? Well, for “assumptions” it makes an “ASS out of U and ME.” So catchy, and yet so true. Not every Millenial or iGen person is experiencing these problems, and without watering down some of these issues, they are more common than than we want to believe. That’s nearly an absolute.
A School Counselor, Teacher, Coach, or anyone for that matter, who may see snippets of high school Senior students showing up in the ways I discussed above are the ones who can help these soon-to-be-adults with the skills they need to be successful during their college transition. Now what’s super important for me to highlight right now is that success is subjective. No one is perfect. We often stumble and fall, and that’s how we learn and grow. If we are left alone to our own device (literally), we may be on the fast track to a blow-out. And no, I’m not referencing a diaper.
Here are some thoughts on the “tools” for the toolbox and indicators of whether or not a high school student will be able to stand on their own two feet when they get to college:
1. Communication: What is the communication at home like? How often are these students communicating with their parents? Are they over-communicating to the point that it appears they are dependent? And same goes for the parent. Are you noticing that the parent is overly involved in knowing everything that’s happening with their child? And what about the ability to ask for help? Has the student ever had to ask for assistance with anything? Colleges are set up with an abundant of resources for students. The catch? They have to ask for it and/or show up to receive it. Most students don’t know how to ask for help, let alone brainstorm who they need to be connected to in order to eliminate their discomforts.
2. Academic Engagement: How did they show up in high school? Did they skip a lot of school and still manage to get passing grades? If they are skipping – where are they? A big part of college is not showing up to class, but doing the work outside of class. Are they going to college with a rigid plan for their major? Nearly 50% of college students change their major at least once. If we collectively know a student’s strength is not math and yet we’re encouraging them to be an Engineering major, we may be setting them up for failure. Not to mention, what do we think about the quality of their work? Do they have the ability to take constructive feedback regarding their work and then adapt and change to meet the rigorous requirements of higher education? Additionally, if a student as an IEP in high school it’s imperative we encourage them to get connected to the Disability Services office. I can’t tell you the number of college freshmen I worked with who refused to get the accommodations they needed. Just because you go to college doesn’t mean that a student’s disabilities, however significant, will magically disappear. Let’s help set them up for success from Day 1!
3. Social Engagement: Let’s look at their friend groups in high school. Did they have friends? If they were connected to negative friend groups, what was their ability to break it off? Or the reason to be connected in the first place? Were they involved with interest groups – in and out of school? Have they ever moved from one new town/school to another and be forced to establish new friends? High School friend groups will dissipate when August rolls around. Everyone will be in different places and meeting new friends. The question becomes, does the now young adult know how to make new friends?
4. Emotional Wellness: If a student had a mental health diagnosis in middle school, they will want to continue getting the help they need in college. Students often wait until they’re in crisis to see a counselor on campus and at that point, the wait time for an appointment may be upwards of three weeks. My recommendation: set up your appointment early. Be proactive, rather than reactive. If you know of a student who has experienced significant trauma prior to high school graduation (i.e. death in family, sexual assault, etc.) you’ll want to encourage that young person to look for a counselor on and off-campus. Help them get the therapeutic resources put in place before they even step foot on campus! Typically there are two ways to think about maladaptive behaviors in high school or college students. The first is “outward” or externalizing behaviors such as aggression, hard partying, high-risk sexual activity, and substance abuse. These are all very obvious and noticeable. The second is “inward,” or internalizing behaviors such as social isolation, substance use, self-harm, poor self-care, and suicidality. These are not always noticeable.
5. Physical Wellness: What are the student’s sleeping, eating, and physical fitness habits? So many high school athletes go to college and don’t do anything physical, and subsequently become depressed. Or a student is addicted to social media and finds his sleep schedule reversed and now lives a nearly nocturnal life. We talk about gut health and its connection to the brain, but that won’t stop a student from eating junk food. Especially if they are not familiar with how to cook, let along meal prep and create a menu plan.
I can’t speak highly enough of Dr. Marcia Morris’ book The Campus Cure as a resource for parents whose children are launching into higher education. She speaks to the problems, pressures, and crisis young adults are facing and how families can provide support from a distance. The seemly simple concepts are not as easy to implement in the heat of the moment though! It’s best for families to read this book before their child goes off to college. That way you can be proactively prepared in knowing how to show up and support your child during their struggles. It’s not an if, but rather a when.
At the end of the day, we collectively cannot point fingers at one single professional and say that it was ‘their fault’ the young person was not successful in their transition to college. We can blame the parents for their parenting styles. We can blame the academic rigor of their high school. We can blame the social scene on campus for not being welcoming. Or we can blame the now college-freshmen for not being resilient enough to make it through. Regardless, it’s a team effort. We can’t be bystanders in the lives of these young people as they launch into adulthood. We are the gatekeepers and we need to be more assertive in sharing our wisdom, assisting students in getting connected, and ultimately leading them to taking charge of their own life. It’s a lot of work, and at the end of the day it truly takes a village. In the face of the mental health crisis in higher education, we need a lot more folks to step up and make sure we’re helping with this “successful” transition into college.