Curing campus blues
Nearly 1 in 2 undergraduates will become severely depressed at some time during college, according to surveys by the American College Health Association. And recent research suggests that a much higher proportion than in past years will contemplate suicide. Shocked by the rapid rise in mental illness on campus, psychiatrist Richard Kadison, chief of Harvard's mental health service, wrote College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It (Jossey-Bass, $24.95). The new book, coauthored by Theresa Foy DiGeronimo, helps parents understand what stresses cause kids to descend into darkness--and how to lend a hand.
What explains the surge in depression among college students?
For one thing, a lot of people come to college on psychotropic medications now who probably wouldn't have been able to come in the past. Certainly, when there's a trauma like 9/11, it stirs up whatever losses and fears we've had in our own lives. Also, families are incurring higher debt, which adds to the pressure. And what's happening in high school and society creates stress: Kids are being raised in a culture of high expectations and have very structured activities and less family time.
Another interesting piece of this is sleep. In 1980, students were sleeping between 7 and 7.5 hours. In 2002, it was between 6 and 6.9 hours. Eighty percent of people who have depression have sleep problems.
Are the recent deaths at New York University and other schools a sign that there's also a campus suicide epidemic?
About 10 percent of students report having seriously considered suicide. But the actual suicide rate is very low: 7.5 per 100,000 students, which is half of the rate for kids who aren't in college. So actually there's something protective about being in college--students have the social supports, and they have adults keeping an eye on things.
What can parents do to inoculate their kids at a younger age?
Our tendency is to be Mr. and Mrs. Fix-it. We want to solve the problems and help our kids avoid pain. But that robs them of the opportunity to solve problems. Parents can help by listening, weighing, agreeing to disagree--and by talking about good and bad things, so students learn that people struggle, feel sad at times, feel angry at times, that it's part of life.
What about protecting them later, once they've left for freshman year?
There's this old AA expression: "Take the cotton out of your ears, and stick it in your mouth." The key is active listening. When kids are having a hard time, they most need to know that their parents are going to listen, even if they disagree or are angry. You want to speak in "I" language--"this is what I'm observing, this is what I'm concerned about"; avoid being judgmental. If parents are too rigid, conversation shuts down.
Students should expect to feel insecure and frightened about what the adjustment will be like. If you were a star student in high school, you're probably not going to stand out among 500 other students who were at the top of their class. It's an exploration process, and those who are connected--with peers, family, professors--find ways to establish a new identity.