Rethinking the College Mental Health Crisis: Do Bubble Wrap and Special Snowflake Myths Prevent a Vision for Needed Change?

02/10/2017 08:27 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2018

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This is Part One of a three-part series about Mitigating the College Mental Health Crisis.

Every generation has its' own martyrdom anthems.

Boomers (born 1945-1960): I had to walk ten miles in the snow to get to school.
Generation X (born 1961-1980): I had to wait at the bus stop in the cold.
Millennials (born 1981-1995): I didn't always get a turn in the heated front seat on the way to school.
Gen 2020 (born after 1995): They keep calling me special snowflake.

As a first generation college student turned college professor, daughter, and mother of a college junior and a high school junior, both sides of the debate on who had it the "worst" are very familiar to me.

Boomers: I never dreamt of going to college. It just wasn't an option. I went straight to work.
Generation X: I didn't have that many choices for college. I had to work my way through.
Millennials: I applied to 12 schools, took my SAT's five times. And those essays...
Gen 2020: I had homework in Kindergarten; my life mapped out by 8. Even with a perfect 4.0, test scores, and having founded a non-profit when I was 12, I won't get in anywhere, and if I do, it will cost me more than a Range Rover.

I've been in higher education for almost eight years, and in the mental health field for twenty-two. I arrived to University life because of my grave concerns about the escalating mental health crisis in education. Between admissions pressures, costs, and perils of actually finding a job after all that's invested, anxieties are widespread, to say the least.

A recent survey by STAT reveals that colleges are scrambling to keep up with the demands for mental health services, with average wait times of two weeks. The cry for adequate services is receiving national attention. In the wake of seven student deaths at Columbia, a petition urging leaders there, and at top-tier institutions including Yale, MIT, and Harvard to allocate more resources is circulating.

As with any crisis, there are lots of theories about who's to blame. Fingers are pointed at parents, students, and administrators. Rarely do we take a look through a generational lens to understand what we've gotten wrong in the past, ways we're off mark now, and where we can go from here.

Boomers: Therapy? That's for crazy people.
Generation X: I saw my first therapist when I was an adult.
Millennials: Embarrassed about therapy? No. My friends are all in therapy too.
Gen 2020: I have a whole team of coaches and therapists.

Too many myths about what's really happening on and off campuses distract us from having conversations that can help students cultivate the agility and resilience they need in and outside the classroom.

Myth # 1: Students of today are all bubble-wrapped. They're coddled special snowflakes; that's why they need their safe spaces and therapists.

While the bubble wrap theories attacking Millennials have become popular sport, with people suggesting the generation is not only lactose intolerant, but life intolerant, there's much more to the story. Here's how to dig deeper:

1. Check their ID's.
Remember that students aren't just 18-22. Among the college students of today reporting high stress are "non-traditional" students. They've become the new "traditional" student--those who are adult working professionals, veterans, and parents returning to the classroom as undergraduate and graduate students. The Anxiety and Depression Society of America cites that 65% of adult working students experience significant anxiety, as they work to juggle the demands of career, family, and academics.

2. Be like Bill Nye. Know your science. Advances in science and medicine have overturned Freud and his couch, helping us move from a deficit, blaming approach to recognizing that mental health disruptions are functions of our physiology. We now have a dearth of brain science that helps us understand how chemistry affects mood and cognition. Depression can be just as debilitating and life threating as other medical conditions like cancer, but have historically been chalked up as signs of weakness, moral failings, and now, allegedly, too much bubble wrap. We can barely keep up with the constant breakthroughs in science, but if we overlook the functions of the frontal lobe, dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, among others, we won't be able to have honest and accurate conversation about mental health.

3. Do the math. Mental illness isn't simply a result of thin skin, but a complex interplay of what's known as biopsychosocial factors: biological, psychological and social. The socio-political climate, lack of sleep, time pressure, academic rigor, financial worries, technostress, and eroding social support adds up, with disastrous cumulative effects. Over the last few decades, we've gone from having 2.94 close confidants to 2.08, but college students most commonly report having 0. This is a formula that equals disaster. Social isolation amplifies biological dispositions to anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, access to timely help is proving to be a defining challenge of the college mental health crisis.

Stayed tune for Part Two of this series, focusing on the number one barrier to getting help: stigma.

Dr. Kristen Lee, known as "Dr. Kris", is an award-winning behavioral science professor, clinician and author from Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Kris is a licensed independent clinical social worker known for her advocacy in promoting increased mental health integration in social policies and institutions to facilitate access and improved health outcomes in the U.S. and across the globe. She regularly works with students and faculty and consults with universities and colleges to mitigate the college mental health crisis. She is the author of RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress, Winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Motivational Book of 2015, and the upcoming Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking.