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SaraKay Smullens

SaraKay Smullens

Posted: December 20, 2010 12:08 PM

Emotional health challenges on college campuses today are overwhelming.

A recent study by the American College Counseling Association concludes that most students visit campus counseling centers with universal post-adolescent difficulties, such as devastation following a romantic breakup, academic pressure, confusion and difficulty defining their futures.

However, 44 percent (up from 16 percent in 2000) visit college and university counseling centers to speak of far more serious disorders: depression and anxieties, thoughts of suicide, self-injury, eating disorders (especially bulimia), and alcohol abuse. Many talk of extensive childhood trauma including physical and sexual abuse. The use of psychiatric medication is up from 17 percent a decade ago. Twenty-four percent are on psychotropic drugs, such as Adderall for attention deficit disorder, Abilify for bipolar disorder, and Wellbutrin for depression.

Compound this with the availability of alcoholic energy drinks and liquor-saturated whipped cream, and occurrences of theft, burglary, vandalism, and alcoholic poisoning. One can see why administrators and counseling staffs on campuses everywhere are exhausted and working beyond overtime in areas they never would have thought conceivable a decade ago.

What is going on? And what can we do about it?

Ideally, in addition to their academic pursuits, campuses are communities where students learn to take responsibility for their safety and well-being and show concern for the safety and well-being of others. They are places where students learn to handle life's anxieties, where they learn to think for themselves as emerging adults, pick themselves up when they make mistakes and have losses, and begin to develop what I call an "emotional sense of direction."

As generations move further from their immigrant roots, the development of these inner capacities for coping, enduring, and caring for others become more and more essential. One of the surest insurance policies toward this end is intimate communication. But the reality of our technological age is that most students would rather text than talk.

There is strong debate in the mental health community focusing on how much psychiatric difficulty is due to genetic chemical imbalance and how much is related to events during one's formative, developmental years. Whatever the causes, I know well that most parents do the best we can. In our parenting, we either repeat or react to how we were treated and what we saw when we were young. I also know that youthful vandalism and acting out is a "cry for help," and that cutting oneself, drinking, and other life-threatening addictions result from a need to escape horrific pain and isolation.

As more and more young college students began to be referred to me with serious life problems, I was able to isolate several family patterns that strongly contribute to the mental health disorders seen on campus: rage, enmeshment (parents who do not understand how essential it is to give their kids some space), rejection/abandonment, severe neglect, and extreme overprotection and overindulgence. I also saw that unless there was a change in these emotional patterns, they often morphed into physical and sexual violence.

Colleges and universities are offering myriad programs offering help, including triage units, students helping each other, and screenings for difficulties. There is also, of course, insistence that laws not be broken and penalties when they are.

In addition to the above, I have also seen that putting groups of young people together and encouraging them to talk and know they are heard and not judged has helped those I work with enormously. Their conversations and confidences validate the harmful impact of the patterns stated above. And they help students to understand this impact and that most parents do the very best we can. Further, in seeing for themselves the healing aspects of trusted communication about what really matters, students are far more able to give up and resist behavior destructive to themselves and others. They move forward, not only in academic concentration, but also in awareness of their own worth as individuals, and the development of an emotional sense of direction -- a vital tool for their futures.