Students, parents, and professors are gearing up for the start of another academic year. And so should you.
Therapists should pay special attention to the emotional and psychological stresses of academic life.
Recent studies suggest that approximately half of American students experience depression.Tragically, some become so depressed to the point of committing suicide, which is the second main cause of death for college and university students.
In 2011, half of students at the University of Alberta claimed to have felt hopeless during the academic year. Seven percent of these Canadian students had considered committing suicide.
At the University of California Berkley, a survey showed that, in a typical academic year, almost half of their graduate students faced a mental health issue. Moreover, about one in four students were not familiar with mental health support services provided by their university.
The Millennial Generation
To analyze some of the mental health issues present on college campuses, it is first beneficial to understand this generation of students.
They are part of the Millennial Generation, which includes individuals born between the 1980s and early 2000s.
As pointed out by Howe and Strauss, the Millennial Generation is characterized by high levels of education, ethnic diversity, an ambition to achieve, and an awareness of social and community issues.
While the above characteristics are positive, this generation has a difficult time accepting criticism and setbacks.
Millennial students have been consistently praised for their successes throughout their lives – by family members, teachers, athletic coaches, extracurricular leaders, music teachers, etc. They have been told that they are embedded with talent and potential. In their eyes, the world is their oyster.
Being a Millennial myself, I recall the numerous awards, honours, and distinctions that were poured upon my siblings, friends, and I during our grade-school years. It seemed that everything we did was seen as a cause for celebration. Our identities became wrapped up in award ceremonies, notices of distinction in our local newspaper, scholarships, and words of praise.
Transitioning from High School to University
This emotional support served as a double-edged sword once I first stepped onto my university campus. Suddenly, my cheerleaders and their blue and white pom-poms had vanished into thin air.
There I was – all alone in a large university dorm miles away from home.
I do not blame anyone for the challenges of my first academic year. However, I cannot deny that they were present. Broadly speaking, I struggled to balance two main areas: (1) the academic demands and (2) my social life.
I was grateful to have received academic awards that helped finance my tuition fees. However, this blessing soon became a curse. To maintain my awards, I was required to maintain straight A’s throughout my four years of study, as well as become involved in extracurricular activities.
This pressure pushed me to work hard and to learn a wealth of knowledge from brilliant professors. I also became active in a fascinating array of extracurricular activities.
However, I eventually pushed myself to the point of feeling physically and emotionally unwell. My symptoms included stress, nausea, dizziness, depression, and a loss of appetite. But having been told that I was born to succeed, I ignored these symptoms and forced myself to work harder.
Though this is not the case for all students, I largely ignored social pressures to party hard. Nevertheless, I slowly learned that I needed to expand my social life in order to be a successful student.
In my third year of study, I began to shift some of the time that I spent overworking to spend more time with friends. Surprisingly, my grades went up that year, as well as my level of happiness. For the first time since high school, I felt less stressed and more fulfilled.
A Healthy Balance
All the advice I had received from student support services, as well as my university therapist, revolved around creating an ideal study schedule. The focus was on managing my time efficiently, so that I could accomplish my academic goals.
However, the key to my success was increasing my level of happiness, not my level of organization. I already had a perfectly organized schedule – trust me, it was even colour-coded and divided up into different categories. The solution for me was to brighten up my social life.
I am only one example of a Millennial student, and therapists should recognize that they cover a wide spectrum.
But I wish my therapist had turned to me and said, “Darling, you don’t need to be the next Hillary Clinton. Why don’t you avoid the library this Friday night and go out with your friends?”