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Fault Lines in the World of Today’s Youth
Academic intelligence offers virtually no preparation for the turmoil—or opportunity—life’s vicissitudes bring.
—DANIEL GOLEMAN, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Carson was the salutatorian of his large public high school, earning the school’s English award and a partial merit scholarship to a top-rated college. He felt proud and enormously relieved. His hard work had paid off. Without that scholarship, the commuter branch of the state university would have been his destination. And his parents had generously offered to help repay his student loans from the prestigious institution that had accepted him.
Their hopes, his dreams, mocked him as he sat in Freshman English, staring at his paper, marked with a large red “D”. The class hour passed in a blur, and Carson next found himself on the eighth floor of the University Library overlooking the Great Hall below. He observed himself, contemplating what he would hit if he jumped. The glassed-in archive displays? The long polished table profiling the many recent faculty publications? A fellow student wafted through his thoughts. A girl in his French class had committed suicide only a month into the semester. She’d had a wonderfully droll sense of humor. Carson hadn’t understood why she’d killed herself. It seemed she had everything going for her. So sad, so strange. But now, panicked and believing his scholarship jeopardized, his future ruined, he grasped her desperation.
A wave of vertigo forced him back from the library’s overhang. He sat down and numbly hit the speed dial for the college hotline. Another student answered and kept Carson on the phone long enough for him to calm down and agree to go to the walk-in campus counseling service. And so, Carson resisted his terrible and momentary impulse. Very fortunately for him, his crisis of confidence was not superimposed upon major depression or bipolar disease. His momentary panic eventually led to therapy, which promoted a greater resilience and better ability to tolerate setbacks and distress.
In addition to vertigo and the absence of mental illness, the serendipity of many emotional skills came to Carson’s aid that afternoon. A strong connection to his family and friends and a willingness to seek help also enabled him to step back from the balcony and make that call. His family environment had fostered the noncognitive skills that empowered him to ask for help when needed. His parents consistently praised his effort more than the outcome; they quietly noticed and supported his interests. When Carson made mistakes, they joked, “pobody’s nerfect.” His family talked through problems but didn’t solve them for him. His emotional preparation broke through his fleeting despair. As his thinking cleared, he recalled how he had coped with another D—on a high school calculus test. At first he had freaked out—“my high school ranking will drop”—then he told his parents, who encouraged him to talk with the teacher. It was this emotional resilience and preparation for adversity that saved him when his academics failed him. Whether coming early or late to these skills, we firmly believe that all students can learn them.
Yet the sad truth is that many students are not so fortunate or so well-prepared when caught in the epidemic of college-age mental health problems. The current and incoming generations of college students need to be better equipped with the maturity boost that social-emotional intelligence provides. Being better prepared for the roller coaster of college life will reduce the chances of their coming off the rails.
And what about the parents on the other side of these frightening experiences? Instead of the nostalgic truism that college will be “the best years of your life,” we hear from countless parents concerned about how their children’s lives are falling apart. Despite all they’ve done to educate and support their talented child, they see signs of wobbling begin to appear in the form of poor coping, anxiety, depression, or emotional upheaval.
As two well-established experts on late adolescent psychiatry and family psychology, we’ve coached families through such times, giving parents tools to help their once-confident students preserve or regain their ability to organize time, work, and even the basics of sleeping and eating. Yet, many students are unprepared for the removal of home’s invisibly embedded emotional and cognitive scaffolding.
In his role as Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and co-chair of the President’s and Provost’s Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Well Being, Dr. Rostain has closely watched the dramatic rise in campus mental-illness rates with deep concern. Colleges and universities across the country are reporting an explosion of mental health problems verging on an epidemic, with a skyrocketing number of students seeking help. Rostain is very familiar with the risks, challenges, and complex systems issues facing young people, and has made it his mission to find solutions for these students and parents alike. As a family psychologist, faculty member, and clinical supervisor, Dr. Hibbs has had decades of experience helping parents and students cope in challenging and crisis-laden times.
As parents ourselves, we know all too intimately the gnawing anxiety that can be fed by pervasive media coverage of such campus hazards as hazing, binge drinking, drug use, and sexual assault, as well as the quieter desperations of “not fitting in” or feeling that you’re “not making it.” When these all-too-common risks give rise to emotional disorders or psychiatric illnesses, students and parents alike can be overwhelmed.
That was Dr. Hibbs’s experience when her son Jensen suffered a depression that required a medical leave from college. Despite her professional expertise, Jensen’s harrowing crisis left Hibbs humbled and scrambling for answers, while more deeply informing her of the preparation, knowledge, and skills that parents and students need. Following Jensen’s treatment by Dr. Rostain—and his subsequent recovery—we resolved to coauthor The Stressed Years of Their Lives, a book that provides solutions, strategies, and solidarity for parents who want to help their students avoid, resolve, or recover from a mental health problem or crisis. It is also a book to give hope and support to students, through the stories of their peers. We thank Jensen, as well as the many students, parents, and educators who so generously lent their stories to this book.1
Copyright © 2019 by B. Janet Hibbs and Anthony Rostain.