In 2018, a global study was conducted in several countries around the world to assess the mental health of incoming college freshman. Based on data collected and analyzed in this research project, the American Psychological Association reported that one in three college freshman "report symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder." While their findings are alarming, they are not altogether surprising.
As a university professor and mental health counselor working with college students over the last 27 years, I've had a front row seat to the lived experience of young adults. From a personal and anecdotal perspective, what I have seen in college students did not just start in the last 27 years. At the core of the adolescent experience is a process of coming to terms with answering the questions, “Who am I? What is my identity?” Oftentimes in that identity journey, students have a lot of deep questions and they struggle through a sense of self-evaluation, self-worth. So college students have always brought an identity quest with them, but I think that there are specific things that have made it more difficult recently: social media and the lingering effects of COVID.
As young people wrestle through their questions about and quest for identity, many get caught on the comparison treadmill. Social media has only served to intensify that temptation over the last decade. Both the initial experience of COVID lockdown and its lingering effects are making it (even more) difficult for students to figure out what they are supposed to do. Add to this the social and political unrest in the United States in recent years, and the result is a multi-layered impact on our students' mental and emotional health.
But in the midst of what seems to be a bleak trend toward increasing rates of mental and emotional struggles among young people, I have also seen a positive change. What I have seen over the years is this growing desire to destigmatize mental health concerns. There is this move away from mental health concerns being so shame-based and exclusionary to being much more embraced and able to be talked about--encouraging each other to get the types of help that we need and to be open. I must applaud this approach of destigmatizing mental health concerns. There is an openness and honesty among people that really brings hope. There is a great deal of hope.
The startling statistic mentioned above regarding incoming college freshman and mental health begs the question, "What can parents do to help their students navigate the timeless identity quest and address mental health concerts before they 'go off to college'?"
I think it is important for parents to understand that their student will struggle--it’s part of the human experience. But one way that parents can help their younger students is to simply make sure they're having conversations with their children about their emotional well-being.
I think it’s also really important to normalize conversations about mental health from a faith perspective. It seems to me that a lot of people that have grown up in a church context think that experiencing emotional struggles is somehow a sign of spiritual weakness. I think it’s important to understand that the Bible is very honest with people who struggle in deep places. Think of the prophets asking God to take them out. King David talking about God’s enemies, killing them and taking him out. Jesus as he struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane. Those are really deep, dark human moments. We have to be honest from a faith and Biblical perspective that the Bible doesn’t whitewash this stuff, people dealt with some difficult issues. So for us as parents and in Christian communities, it's important to talk honestly about the Bible and how honest it is about this holistic struggle.