As a therapist, I have noticed that one way we can take a preventative approach to dealing with emotional distress is to change the way we think of timelines; specifically, our expectations regarding high school and college-age individuals. I believe that one of the main reasons we see significant distress begin in the mid-twenties is because of the expectations that we put on our youth and young adults. We as a society pressure youth to achieve certain milestones “on time.” Teenagers are expected to finish high school by a certain age, to then attend college directly after high school, to then graduate from college in four years, and to then find a job (and hopefully a career) soon after. These are a lot of expectations on a young person who is also dealing with many additional challenging changes going on within themselves and their environment.
Why as a society do we place so much emphasis on these timelines? I think it is because every son or daughter in our society is expected to “get ahead” of everyone else. But what evidence is there that someone who follows these timelines will have more success in the end than someone who does not? My point is that, during the high school years, many teenagers are not ready to be in high school or move on to college. They may have the intellectual capacity but not the emotional capacity. Yet we prioritize intellectual development and students don’t receive emotional support, which may lead to substance abuse, severe emotional distress, etc. Many school guidance counselors are not trained to prioritize emotional well-being, they are trained to help the student get into the best college they can.
As a society, we must stop enforcing this notion that our child will “fall behind” if he or she takes time off to work on themselves and become truly ready to take the gigantic step into high school and toward college, whatever that may mean. There needs to be an emphasis on identifying students who are not ready to approach a traditional high school setting or begin college (a step that often involves leaving home for the first time, and the myriad of new responsibilities that come with it). If a person has emotional distress that has not been prioritized, it is often now self-medicated, through alcohol and substance abuse, as the expectations and pressures of life only become greater with each step “forward.” I have unfortunately seen young men and women turn to drugs that can be so toxic as to compound the emotional distress, sometimes causing lifelong consequences. Often the underlying issues began years earlier but were ignored in favor of the hyper-focus on academic accomplishment.
When we push our children forward simply because this is what we are taught to do, it can lead to disaster and ultimately wasted years of precious life. It is okay to go sideways in life! As adults we frequently go sideways, by changing to a new job, getting remarried, moving to a new location, etc, but during adolescence we don’t allow sideways to happen. When major emotional distress starts in the mid-twenties, such as with those who develop schizophrenia, bipolar, and other significant situations, individuals have not been given that extra time to heal and mature as they are pushed forward and expected to keep up with others who are not having these problems.
It is important to realize that higher education is not necessarily “higher” than anything else one might pursue. For example, in my counseling career, I work with many individuals who may not have been to college or graduated high school, who work successfully at a trade. They have families, they sometimes run businesses, and they are often very good at whatever they choose to do. Their families value success based not on the letters after one’s name but the skills that their children learn, no matter what that may mean.
Let’s recognize emotional distress for what it is! It is not a sin, it is not something to be embarrassed about. It is real and until we start looking at it straight in the face, as a society, we won’t recognize the importance of accommodating those who are going through it as we would with another disability. Emotional distress becomes scarier when it is ignored. It frequently will worsen and it doesn’t ever “go away” quietly.
It is at the high school level where the recognition needs to begin more carefully than it does now. During the adolescent years, the signs of emotional distress are sometimes hidden at home. A young person may display themselves as quiet, spend an excessive amount of time alone, begin using drugs or alcohol excessively, and engage in other risky behaviors. Many parents are shocked to find out years later, after their son or daughter has been hospitalized, that their child was engaging in these activities while living in their home. Sometimes a “quiet” high school student who manages to produce good academic grades passes through the home without forming attachments to his or her parents. Parents often accept this facade of normalcy without questioning the secrecy that may be masking the beginnings of major emotional distress. To illustrate this point — in the last 30 years, we have seen the increase of school shootings in this country, and in their aftermath, there is often a refrain that begins with the parents who respond, “I didn’t know anything was wrong, there weren’t any signs,” etc. The lack of communication was assumed to mean “normalcy.”
There are always signs, and I believe that these often occur in school and they are often overlooked or trivialized. Schools need to be hypervigilant when it comes to emotional distress. Counselors need to be awarded enough power to make serious decisions about students whom they see are using poor emotional coping skills. We hyper-focus on test scores yet we don’t focus on emotional testing for every student! We wait until problems arise, i.e. bullying, using drugs in school, excessive tardiness, to take any action. Why aren’t we preventive in our approach and engaging all young adults by testing their emotional health?
The winding path is very often the only path that a human being can follow. It has to become an acceptable path. We have to stop pushing young kids because WE want them to be somewhere without regard to what they are ready for. A person’s emotional life is more important than their academic life — much more important. Without emotional maturity and emotional health, the education will eventually fall apart because the frail person will need to express their suffering, either through drug addiction, alcoholism, schizophrenia, suicide, etc. We have to start understanding that these issues are societal ones. They happen because we are too focused on getting ahead and not focused on the whole picture, the capacity to love and feel cherished and live without overwhelming fear or anger. We must prioritize emotional health that may not fit the timeline that has become so important, in order to prevent the devastating effects on a young person whose need for a non-linear progression is ignored until their emotional needs turn into serious consequences.