After we received the results of our parents’ survey on student mental health, we wanted to talk to parents further about their concerns and their expectations. Using videoconference software, we gathered five parents of current college students — diverse by geography, ethnicity, and gender orientation — in a virtual roundtable discussion, for a Brady Bunch-like block of six squares onscreen.
What we found gave voices (and faces) to the survey findings: Parents are very concerned about mental health on campus — not just for their own students, but the ones their children will befriend, study with, and live with. And while the parents have opinions about the support structures that should be in place, they’re uncertain about the way they’re put in practice, campus by campus.
NB: The number of students who say they’ve experience a mental health issue in college has risen dramatically in recent years, and schools are struggling to keep up with the requests for counseling services. Where is this coming from, in your opinion? What’s different and more psychologically difficult about being a college student today than when we were in school?
JN (mother of three, including twin first-year daughters): Social media, for one. Students with Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat can see what everyone else is doing and they have tremendous FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Everyone else seems to be having so much fun, so many friends, the picture-perfect adjustment.
LT (mother of three, including twin first-year boys): There’s reality, and then there’s Instagram reality, and they can’t always tell the difference.
JN: Right. And they have trouble doing the steps it takes to build relationships from scratch. They’re more used to texting than real-life communicating, so the things they need to do to meet people and make new friends on campus are out of their comfort zone. Sticking your neck out, making small talk, sitting down and eating with people you don’t know very well. It’s more comfortable to have your headphones on or your face in your screen if you’re alone around campus. But that’s exactly the opposite of what you need to be doing.
KC (mother of three, including a college senior daughter and sophomore son): I read an article by a child psychologist recently that said something to the effect of, Today’s kids are ill-equipped with the skills they need to interact as social beings in the world. They’ve grown up with their time organized for them and playdates arranged and activities scheduled.
And in addition to not being used to unscheduled time, they’re not as comfortable making conversation to meet people and asking, “How are you?” or “Where are you from?” – the things we used to call icebreakers. When we were little kids, [our generation] worked out problems with friends in the neighborhood by standing in the street and hashing it out. That’s how you figure out the rules of engagement, and how to function in groups when other people aren’t telling you exactly what to do all the time.
NB (interviewer and mother of five, including a first-year son): And for a lot of kids, that kind of play seems old-school and drama-filled, very “Sandlot” or “Little Rascals.” With unsupervised kids getting lost or into trouble all the time.
AH (mother of three, including a first-year daughter, and twin boys who are seniors in high school): Now there’s just a different kind of trouble. Being a teen is just so hard with technology. Friend dynamics are different, dating is different, the bullying is different, the isolation is more obvious… It’s no wonder they are stressed and anxious and depressed.
LT: It all affects their mental health! I’m just glad this is being talked about now and taken seriously and addressed by schools. We have what’s practically a suicide epidemic among young people, and we have to find better ways to support them. Whether they’re having trouble making friends, or the environment feels foreign and family feels far away, or the population seems really different.
AH: And it can be really different. Schools today are much more diverse, and by design. There’s an intentionality about diversity that’s a very good thing. But it can also make it a bit harder, walking into a room where on the surface it might look like you have nothing in common with people, or there’s a cultural difference or language barrier. It takes more work and effort to get past that and to a place where you find the things you have in common. Which is good, but it’s also one more hurdle and one more step out of your comfort zone, when we’re talking about kids who might already be lacking in that spontaneous social aptitude.
NB: Who is watching out for them, and what’s the first line of defense for students when they are falling off-kilter? Did the school lay that out for you as parents during orientation?
AH: I honestly have no idea. My daughter just started as a freshman, and we had about 10 assigned minutes to practically drop her off curbside.
LT: My twin boys are freshmen and the school was very good about explaining campus resources from the first visit, the channels of help open to students. Our ears were sort of open for it from the beginning, because both boys are gay and one has battled anorexia. They’ve found the community to be very welcoming, and they’re finding their people. They don’t have trouble making friends. In fact, they often end up being a resource for other people because they know where to get answers and support. And with a mother who’s a GYN, they get all kinds of questions from women friends looking for information they don’t want to ask the RA.
KC: The classic model was always Resident Advisors as the first line of a support system in the dorms keeping an eye on things and being there to talk. But when you’re talking about recognizing when students are approaching crisis mode, that’s a lot of pressure on student RAs. And honestly, on roommates, too.
JN: I think it should be a multi-tiered approach — not every situation means a student needs to be marched down for counseling. A peer-to-peer approach to talking things out can go a long way for things like academic stress and social problems. There are a lot of peer support networks out there. And resident advisors, and head residents. There are people moving up in age and responsibility who are either on site or on call in the dorms. One of my twin girls is a freshman, and they had a very thorough overview for students and parents about the support network in place. My other twin is at a big city school [laughs], so yeah, not a lot of handholding there.
KK (mother of three, including a first-year daughter): I’m a dean of student life at a very small arts college in Philadelphia, and I can tell you there are a lot of times when it’s a faculty member seeing a student is in trouble. Someone who’s trying to be independent but is falling behind, and either is afraid to tell anyone or doesn’t know what to do, goes to their teacher and says, “I couldn’t get this assignment done because there’s so much and I don’t understand and I’m really overwhelmed.” And the teacher may or may not be equipped to help them psychologically, so we tell the faculty to urge the student to come in to the counseling center. But this also depends on the student being willing and able to speak up to the professor.
KC: My son has a friend at school in Ohio who just stopped going to classes for a month, it was all too much for him. And no one noticed. How would an RA notice that?
NB: In an ideal world, the parents would be the ones noticing that something was off, and realizing the pressure was building up. For students, where’s the pressure coming from? Themselves, wanting to be perfect?
LT: From parents!
KK: I have better communication with my daughter now that she’s across the country than I did when she was in high school.
AH: We’re not always talking all the time, but we’re texting at least every day. That’s the upside of technology, it’s like a constant open conversation. It’s not like when we were in college, and I’d call my parents once a week.
JN: On Sunday nights, because the rates were cheaper.
AH: From the hall phone! [laughter from all six faces on screen]
KK: But back to where’s the pressure coming from? It’s because the stakes feel higher for everything. They worked so hard to get in, and it costs so much, and an undergraduate degree doesn’t even get you very far these days. So you’re looking at more grades to get into more schools for more money, crazy amounts of money, and loans.
LT: They don’t want to disappoint the parents or look embarrassed to other people at home. So they might not want to admit it’s not going well. They might believe they can work it out in the end before it gets to be a big problem, and then get themselves into a hole, but they don’t want anyone to know.
NB: And you do hear that issue, too, the issue of privacy versus a parent’s right to know. There’s the parent frustration that they didn’t know their student was in so much distress until there’s a serious cry for help.
KK: But your hands are tied as an institution if the student is a legal adult. I had a situation where my friend’s daughter was attending my school. She’d had a lot of problems in the past, and my friend asked me to keep an eye on her. Well, I had some suspicions that things weren’t going well, but she kept saying everything was fine whenever I checked in. How much can you do in that situation? If they don’t want to confide, and don’t want to seek help, there’s only so much you can do when someone is over 18. She ended up leaving school.
LT: There are confidentiality issues with HIPPA.
KC: And it’s both with the school, and medically with the state, too. But there are forms you can sign with the school and your student, giving consent under certain circumstances. It differs by school, and there are steps with each state, but they do exist.
JN: I think if the parents suspect their child isn’t ready for school, then they need to think hard about whether to send them yet. It doesn’t help anyone if the student isn’t emotionally equipped or academically prepared to be away at school. A gap year can be a beautiful thing.
KK: But there’s this pressure to know where you’re going, know what you’re doing, have your perfect future all lined up. At my kids’ school they have “commitment day” March 1, and everyone wears the sweatshirt of the college they’ve decided on. But that’s so early and creates anxiety for kids who aren’t sure, or still have too many balls in the air. For my daughter, the financial pieces hadn’t fallen into place yet. Her biological father is African, so she had some potentially good opportunities, but we didn’t know yet what was going to come through. She wanted to go to school in L.A. where she’d find more diversity — all my kids get labeled the “beautiful exotics” [air quotes], and she just wanted to go to school where there’d be more people who looked like her. So she’s got that on her mind, plus the financial piece, with a mother saying, ‘Come to my college,’ and there’s a lot of pressure about making the right choice.
NB: At least transferring has become more common if they feel like they didn’t make the right choice.
KC: My daughter was dead set on going to a city school. We’d be driving through some beautiful countryside on the way to a city, and there’s a bucolic campus right there and she was like — [turns head away from looking into camera] Nope, no. So she went to a big city school, which was great because I was on the medical faculty there. But she hated it. When she came home for the holidays she’d lined up all the transcripts she had to have sent, and these places she wanted to see, all the things she was supposed to do the first time around. She ended up at small New England school and she loves it, and she figured it all out herself. What started as a mistake turned into a huge growth experience.
KK: But is it really a mistake? Isn’t picking themselves up what we want them to learn? They did what we’re always wanting them to do — make a choice, learn from it, change course, find a better situation. When it’s looked at as a mistake, it adds to the unhappiness.
AH: Hear, hear.