It is that monumental time of year. Spring is in the air. Cherry blossoms are blooming. Letters stuffed with confetti are arriving... or not.
For many high school seniors, years of academic rigor, AP history, varsity cheerleading, advanced volunteerism, and all-night essay writing feels singularly pointed at this moment: Will they join the ranks of 21 million other young Americans on their way to college? Will their love for a particular school of higher learning be requited?
This can be a year of overwhelming stress. Decisions made and to be made. Dreams in various states of being realized. Relief, elation, heartbreak and pressure bubble to the surface.
This spring, I have been more acutely aware of this sensitive time for young people. For one, a few of my close friends have been trying to navigate this process and over the past year, I had the opportunity to take part in three important events around the topic of mental health on college campuses. In September, the academic year was launched with a panel discussion with Patrick Kennedy, Elyn Saks and two students at the Saks Institute of Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the USC Gould School of Law. This important conversation recently continued at the Saks Institute, where a two-day symposium with 40 speakers was held followed a month later by an equally inspiring Town Hall at Pace University in partnership with Facebook, The Jed Foundation and The Clinton Foundation.
The simple math about mental health in universities begs the question: Are we doing enough to make sure that every student is able to access the resources, tools, communities, and... how else do I say it? The courage needed to be open, to get help and to feel flawless and whole, no matter what is going on.
One in four young people will experience depression before they reach the age of 24. How many college rejection letters do you need to receive before you feel depressed? And for a generation that has been especially primed to feel how starkly the odds may not be always in your favor (in 2013, college acceptance rates dropped to the lowest in history) -- does anyone blame young people for feeling stressed and a little down?
As I always say, it isn't the emotions that are the problem. It's what we do with them. For too many young people, the feelings -- sadness, anger, fear, whatever they end up being -- will be turned inward, turned into isolation, and turned into beliefs about who they are, not about their stress levels, brain chemistry or what they experienced.
Nearly a third of college students say they felt so sad or depressed in the past year that they had trouble functioning. I can relate. It took three colleges, four psychiatric hospitalizations and seven years for me to graduate from college. It may take a semester to learn calculus. But did it really need to take seven years for me to receive treatment and a college degree? Shouldn't the system work better than that?
Thankfully, systems are working better. Much better. And with enough focus, institutions of higher learning could not only become a pivot point for impacting public health, but could also provide students with the life long tools for resilience needed to thrive.
There are many more resources available since my college days of trying to hide my mental health challenges, and those resources are increasing with the support and spotlight on this crucial public health issue from many organizations. The Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics, Facebook, the Clinton Foundation and the Jed Foundation should all be celebrated for their dedication, leadership and messaging.
Over and over again, the themes from the experts on the panels sponsored by these organizations were:
You are not alone
These steps aren't rocket science, or even trigonometry. But they can save a life.
Let us all think of our nation's high school seniors this month. While our instinct might be to protect them from the turmoil of this milestone, what we can do is be present to them and validate what they are experiencing which shouldn't leave anyone feeling isolated or wrong.
If you know a young person who has just gone through this process, forward these resources to them, and track them down to tap them on the shoulder and say, "Hey, How are you? I see you, I am here."
Active Minds - Changing the Conversation about Mental Health
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.