Last year, three undergraduates from Cornell committed suicide. Another from Yale leapt from the top of the Empire State Building. Yet another from Bard College and five high-schoolers from elite Palo Alto high schools also took their own lives.
It seems tragic that these bright, promising students, after having dodged thousands of threats -- childhood diseases, falls, bike accidents, car collisions -- should reach the pinnacle of American higher education and enroll in a fine institution only to prematurely end their own lives in full bloom.
And consider this: for every student who commits suicide, dozens have attempted it unsuccessfully, and thousands have contemplated it. Serious psychological distress amongst college students goes under-reported, and it's impossible to overstate its adverse effects. At the very least, it can derail an otherwise successful college career, with consequences reverberating far into the future.
I've observed three key factors involved in waylaying a college career. There's the initial insult -- a stressor like a bad grade or breakup. The magnitude of the stress depends on the student's susceptibility. The more naïve and sheltered they are, the more susceptible they tend to be. And finally, if the student finds sources of support, whether internal or external, she tends to recover. If not, a downward spiral ensues, resulting in flunking, depression, hospitalization or worse.
There's not much you can do about the insult -- shit happens. But you can decrease susceptibility and improve support, as we'll discuss in this article.
For the past seven years, I've been conducting a sendoff event for a small subset of the 2.2 million students entering their freshman year of college -- namely, the Harvard-bound students of Greater Los Angeles. In this event, entitled the Harvard Underground Guide to Success (aka Enter to Grow in Wisdom), recent graduates and current students share firsthand accounts of how best to navigate academic, social and extracurricular life in college. The purpose of HUGS is to help students have a fruitful and fun first year, finding their footing in college without unintentionally stressing themselves out or derailing academically.
Unfortunately, not everyone on the Harvard campus gets to attend HUGS. And even among those who do, some forget the advice. They end up overburdening themselves -- with too many difficult classes too soon, too much extracurricular responsibility, destructive liaisons, or drugs and alcohol.
If you're the parent of one of these elite college students, you're probably thinking, "My kid's too smart for that." Well, think again, because that's the thought every parent had whose college kid's life got derailed, sometimes permanently.
We do not want that to happen to your child.
Going to college isn't just about attending a new academic institution. It's a barrage of change and novelty: new friends, new city, new living quarters, new roommates, new food, new schedule, new social milieu, and distance from the old network of social support.
Novelty is stressful. So a barrage of novelty is a barrage of stress. Nothing has prepared them for this, even if their high school had 'college preparatory' in its name. As a parent, you're in a position to ease that stress, helping smooth the transition to college. Or at the very least, you can catch trouble before it gets out of hand.
Over the course of my six years as a HUGS coordinator, four years as a college advisor, and nine years as a graduate student and undergrad, I've noticed three interrelated areas in which the lives of hotshot college kids can go haywire: academics, romance and drugs (especially alcohol). First, I'll describe some points of instability in each area. Then, I'll share with you some preventive measures to avert disaster by addressing susceptibility and support.
Academics. The biggest mistake top students make when entering an elite college is to overburden themselves academically. Often these kids are so talented that high school couldn't offer them a challenge. So they come to college and go bananas, not even imagining that it's possible to overextend themselves.
I should know because I was that kid. Right out of the gates at Harvard, I took advanced classes in math, French and physics in my first semester. Together with all the extracurriculars I was trying out and all the new friends I was having late-night bull sessions with, there simply weren't enough hours in the day to keep up with my schoolwork.
I received the worst grades I had ever received in my life, shattering my confidence and the dreams of graduating at the top of my class. I felt genuine despair for the first time. Luckily, I recovered quickly enough to have a respectable academic career.
Had I been less lucky, a downward spiral could have established itself, like it has for many students: the bad grades would have led to indifference or giving up, leading to depression, leading to even worse grades, leading to deeper depression, leading to failure, leading to expulsion -- and worse.
Remedy: Tell your student that if she's at a Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Cornell, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth or Penn that she's already doing well. There's no need to prove anything -- at least not for the first year. Much better to stock up on easy classes for the first two semesters to give herself time to acclimate to all the novelty. With a firmer footing and a better grasp of her environment, she'll be in a much better position for world conquest in her second year. This way, you're making her much less susceptible to stressors.
If you're already detecting distress in your student, tell her that you support her unequivocally and love her unconditionally regardless of what grades she gets. A C-, D or even failing grade is not the end of the world. Many stressed students, especially those from immigrant families emphasizing success at all cost, are reluctant to seek support from family for fear of being thought a failure. There is a time for the pep talk and there is a time for understanding. So keep your heart and lines of communication wide open, letting your child know that your love does not depend upon her achievements. Consider bringing her home for a spell if things get really bad.
Romance. Every story that I've heard of a Harvard student getting depressed or suicidal has involved a bad romance. In my observation, it may even be the prime precipitant of serious distress.
Most 18-year-old college freshmen are inexperienced in the ways of love; this is even more true of students at elite colleges who probably spent most of their time on schoolwork, not relationships. So when they get their first kiss, first sex, first relationship (and subsequently, first breakup) their whole world turns topsy-turvy. I was certain I was going to marry my first college girlfriend, and was clinically depressed for two months after our breakup. Many college kids have similar experiences.
Remedy: Sex and relationships are topics that almost no parents discuss with their college kid (my parents haven't talked about it to this day). I understand it's awkward and uncomfortable. And maybe even you don't feel qualified to teach your child about it. However, realize that it is a matter of life and death. You need to talk about relationships, boyfriends, girlfriends, falling in love, falling in lust, sex, protection -- all of that awkward stuff. As clueless as you may imagine yourself, you know a hell of a lot more about this than they do, and if they don't learn it from you, they may have to learn it in the classroom of cruel circumstance. If it's just too hard for you to talk about this, refer them to a good resource on love and social life in college.
Alcohol and drugs. Anyone who has a brain is susceptible to drugs and alcohol. For better or for worse, this includes your kid, no matter how smart she is. Living in a dorm with no parental supervision means that your child will be exposed to alcohol and drugs.
Remedy: Now that you've accepted that, educate her about such things before she gets there, and keep tabs on her while she's there. I recommend the path of being sensibly permissive; hardline approaches tend to backfire. For example, tell her that alcohol in moderation is fine; if your speech and gait get impaired, you've had too much. That happens when you have more than a drink per hour, so drink less than that. Harder drugs just kill your precious brain cells and make you stupid, so you're better off avoiding them. And stimulants like Adderall -- very popular on high-performing campuses -- make you addicted and sick, so don't even get started.
Sometimes it's more effective to hear this from a non-parental source, so you may want to have an older sibling or cousin give her this talk. If that's not available, we're happy to do it for you.
In the next article, we'll discuss some effective techniques for monitoring your college student's well-being from afar -- some low-tech, some high-tech. Used judiciously and in combination, they can provide unprecedented access to the state of mind of your child -- and peace of mind for you, the parent.
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