I work at a college in the Upper Midwest—in the Driftless Area, more specifically—“where river, woodland, and prairie meet.” It is a beautiful campus, surrounded by tree-covered bluffs, with lots of opportunity for hiking and biking—and snowshoeing and skiing in winter.
Despite the pastoral surroundings and active lifestyle, some of our students—like many students across the country—are not mentally and emotionally healthy.
I was reminded of this recently when I read an article on mental health in our student newspaper, Luther College Chips. It discussed, among other things, the continually increasing need for counseling services on college campuses—including ours.
The article concluded with some grim statistics:
“Mental health is a serious concern on college campuses nationwide. A report released by the American College Health Association in spring of 2015 stated that 49.5 percent of college students surveyed reported feelings of hopelessness in the past 12 months. In the same time period, 35.3 percent reported debilitating depression and 57.7 percent indicated that they had experienced overwhelming anxiety.”
What!? A third of college students have debilitating depression and over half have experienced overwhelming anxiety? Sure, college should be rigorous, but it should be manageable. I know at our college we provide lots of academic support for any student who needs or wants it—it’s definitely not a swim or sink culture.
It made me wonder: Are colleges unrealistic in their demands academically, or are we failing to equip our children with the tools they need to live mentally and emotionally healthy lives? I’m leaning toward the latter.
This became even clearer to me when I came across research about first-year college student emotional preparedness by the JED Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Jordan Porco Foundation. They found that “60% of students wish they had gotten more help with emotional preparedness for college.” Further, “50% of students felt stressed ‘most’ or ‘all of the time.’” And a whopping “87% of students said college preparation during high school focused more on academics than emotional readiness.”
Something is wrong with this picture. We are failing to prepare our children for life.
In my book, Her Lost Year, I imagine what a society designed to optimize kids’ (and all people’s) mental health might look like. Such a society is full of worker cooperatives, social businesses, and family-friendly policies. It values cooperation over competition. It promotes child-centered learning and vocation. It puts people first and does not include anything resembling profit-over-people capitalism. It’s pretty amazing!
I know, I know. It will take a while to get there.
In the meantime, there are things we can do right now to build resilience—that innate and teachable trait that allows even traumatized children to grow into physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy adults—in our children.
1. Teach Kids Social and Emotional Skills
When my daughter attended a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills group in ninth grade, I had an epiphany. As I perused the materials and witnessed the skills at work in my daughter’s life, I thought, why isn’t this a class you take in school? I certainly would have benefited from some of these skills throughout my school years and adulthood!
I started looking around the internet and realized that others had had the same epiphany. It even had a name: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). I further learned that there is an entire organization, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), promoting SEL in school districts across the nation.
So what exactly is SEL? According to CASEL’s website, “SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
I.e., it’s preparing kids for life! (And in the process, it boosts academic achievement, because calm, focused brains are better prepared to learn than anxious, distracted brains. Win, win!)
SEL can be implemented in a number of ways. CASEL has created comprehensive guides for selecting a SEL curriculum. Based on research and experience, I am particularly interested in mindfulness-based curricula such as MindUP and Mindful Schools. My new favorite program is Yoga Calm, because it integrates mindfulness, movement, and social and emotional skills. I’m so impressed by this curriculum that I’m participating in their youth instructor certification program.
Several states including Tennessee, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have made great strides toward CASEL’s goal “for all students in preschool through high school to receive high-quality social and emotional learning.” If these states can do it, all states can do it.
2. Practice Brave Parenting
Krissy Pozatek, wilderness therapist, parent coach, and author, writes in her most recent book, Brave Parenting, about how to raise emotionally resilient children. Drawing from her extensive experience in wilderness therapy and inspired by Buddhism, Pozatek provides a step-by-step guide to teaching children how to “make and mend their own moccasins.” She uses the moccasin metaphor to describe internal resources such as delayed gratification, problem solving, adaptability, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, internal motivation, self-discipline, and acceptance of impermanence.
A key aspect of practicing brave parenting is allowing your children to feel uncomfortable—and letting them know that it’s okay not to be happy all the time. Pozatek writes, “We need to step away from the notion of constant happiness and move toward a concept of emotional health. Instead of focusing all of our attention and research on happiness, we need to learn how to just be with sadness, disappointment, worry, anger, embarrassment, struggle, failure, until these feelings subside.”
As a parent, I know this is easier said than done. My instinct is to fix the problem—make the pain stop—as soon as possible. However, when we jump immediately to fixing mode, we actually invalidate our child’s feelings and rob her of an opportunity to make her moccasins.
As Pozatek says, our message to our children should be “‘You’ve got this,’ rather than ‘I’ll fix it.’”
3. Value Kids for Who They Are—Not What They Do
“Great job!” “Way to go!” How many times have we said this to a child, whether or own or others’? It’s part of our culture. We cheer on our football players and applaud loudly after the school musical. And why not? We want to show our appreciation for our kids’ talents and fearless performances.
I never thought of this as an issue until I did the research for my book on how to raise resilient kids. Turns out praising your child for what he does rather than who he is, is not helpful to building your child’s self-esteem. And good, consistent self-esteem is one of the best predictors of future mental and emotional well-being.
Psychologist Shefali Tsabary writes in The Conscious Parent, “Whether you have an infant or a teen, your children need to feel that just because they exist, they delight you. They need to know they don’t have to do anything to earn your undivided attention. They deserve to feel as if just by being born, they have earned the right to be adored.”
This strategy applies to teaching as well. Progressive parenting and education guru Alfie Kohn calls this “unconditional teaching.” He wrote an article on the topic, in which he outlines a number of ways teachers can provide unconditional acceptance, including acting like real human beings around their students, not playing favorites, and remembering details about children’s lives.
Imagine if every child received this message from at least one adult in their lives: “I am irrationally crazy about you, because you exist.” It would be a different world.
* * *
Yes, we need to provide more support for today’s college students and raise awareness that mental and emotional distress is not something one should suffer alone. However, we can’t let the imminent need for intervention (at all levels of the educational system) distract us from also working to optimize kids’ mental health—at home, at school, and through social change.
It is our responsibility as a society to prepare our kids for life. It will require a new way of parenting and teaching and being with our children, but the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience of changing our ways. Lives are at stake here. Let’s make this a priority.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.