May was ‘Mental Health’ month, when health care professionals and counselors focused on awareness of the incidence and treatment of mental health issues for all ages.
I want to address the concern shared by many professionals in the field about the mental health of our youth. I feel particularly moved to address this after hearing of yet another suicide this past week at a highly competitive university where many of our students aspire to attend. I never get desensitized, even though statistics show that 10 percent of all college students contemplate suicide at some point and that depression, anxiety, substance use and eating disorders are pervasive issues on college campuses.
I, too, have to join the ranks of professionals and parents who are asking, what we are doing to our youth that they feel so much pressure and stress to want to end their lives? Marilee Jones, the former director of admissions at MIT, speaks eloquently about this issue in her book, “Less Stress and More Success.” While she acknowledges that college officers sometimes inadvertently perpetuate this stress, parents also need to share some responsibility. It is commonplace to find parents who measure their own self-worth through the accomplishment of their sons and daughters. However, in my practice, I find that parents are generally motivated more by fear of their student not being able to compete in this global society and be financially secure in today’s economy, than their need to obtain bragging rights.
As a college counselor, I see firsthand how students can perceive a college acceptance or rejection as a reflection of their cumulative efforts and self-worth. I witness teens, particularly juniors, juggling up to five to six AP classes on top of endless extracurricular activities and student leadership positions in order to compete for a seat at a highly selective university. Springtime brings a constant barrage of testing as students go from one SAT to the next, believing that their future rests on these test results.
While I am tempted to tell students to slow down the pace and focus on getting a good night’s sleep, I also recognize what it takes to stand out from the crowd. I would love to tell the students who I work with to use summer as a chance to relax and enjoy their family and friends. As parents, we can remember a time when summer was meant for daydreaming and a chance to kick back at the beach.
Yet as a college counselor, I must realistically advise them to consider that admission officers see summer as another class and opportunity to take their learning outside the classroom. For students who have forsaken sleep, family time and even their adolescence as they race toward gaining admission to a prestigious college, it can be disheartening to discover that when they do enroll, their efforts only necessitate that they run faster amongst an even more competitive pool of students.
If you get the opportunity, I advice all parents to watch the documentary, “The Race to Nowhere,” which features the heart-breaking stories of students across the country. In interviewing a wide cross-section of students, the film highlights how our students have become disengaged, how stress-related illness, depression and burnout have become rampant, and how young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. I personally have seen the film twice now and each time leave with a commitment to ensure that I deliver the message that admission to any college, regardless of its ranking, is not worth sacrificing our children’s mental or physical health.
It will be crucial for all of us to refocus on making the most of those fleeting last years of high school, when our students are still home with us, and know that they left for college resilient, happy and healthy — regardless of where they end up.
Joan Franklin is the owner of MI College Support, an independent college counseling practice (www.micollegesupport.org). She can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.