Unlike his former classmates, Alex isn’t writing final exams right now, or searching for a holiday job, or choosing electives for next year. Alex is no longer a student at all.
As an academic leader responsible for student affairs, I know that Alex (not the student’s real name) was diagnosed with a severe mental health condition soon after graduating high school.
In the end, Alex failed a few too many courses a few too many times and is now working a minimum-wage job.
A dreadful transcript and almost a decade of difficult life experience are the return on the time and money that this student invested with us. And, sadly, the story is far from unique.
“Normal” life pathologised?
Well, cry me a river, some older and allegedly wiser fellow citizens seem to say. We remember tough times, and they didn’t come with smartphones, deadline extensions and therapy dogs.
From this point of view, most students who seek mental-health services and accommodations really just need a kick in the pants.
Even scholarly lips sometimes curl reactively at reports of pressure faced by universities’ mental-health and intellectual-disability services.
In a recent article in The Conversation, Stanley Kutcher, the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health at Dalhousie University, noted that reports on student mental health challenges are often based upon students’ descriptions of their own symptoms, and that these reports are routinely followed by calls for “more pills, more therapy, more of everything, including more panic.”
Kutcher alleged that “many” health professionals are “pathologising normal life” by failing to recognise that it’s healthy for young people to experience and report negative emotions.
He’s right, of course, that self-reported symptoms do not, in themselves, demonstrate the incidence of illness. People sometimes misleadingly (but innocently) use clinical terms to describe negative feelings.
A screentime generation
One thing can, however, lead to another. Mental and physical health challenges may be triggered or aggravated by chronic stress, and just being young is stressful.
Stress, of course, is part of a healthy and productive life. However, adolescent stress has rapidly become more traumatic under the always-public gaze of social media.
The damage of cyber-shaming is significantly greater and more enduring than the bullying experienced in pre-internet times, according to psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, who has mined huge datasets about the American generation that she calls iGen.
The picture that emerges from her research is of a cohort that grows up slower, socialises less, sleeps less and whose capacity for happiness is inversely proportionate to screentime.
And then as teens become 20-something and graduation looms, a big new stress emerges: Facing today’s uncertain, demanding and complex job market.
Are all of these worried young people suicidal or psychotic? Of course not; most (significantly more than half) of the people we encounter on any given day are mentally healthy. But many are not.
Today’s students seem more willing than yesteryears’ to talk about distress and mental health in general terms (“I feel sad”) but the stigma attached to scary symptoms (“I hear voices”) has by no means disappeared.
Meanwhile, clinicians have become increasingly aware that symptoms of relatively minor mood issues may mask personality disorders and psychosis, which, again, are most likely to show up by the early 20s, and are often accompanied and complicated by substance abuse.
Identified and treated early, even those scary diagnoses can be followed by years of productive and symptom-free life.
Compared to death, the other potential consequences of mental illness may seem trivial. But a few lost classes can quickly add up to a lost year, a cycle of discouragement and a prematurely ended academic career.
Someone showing symptoms of illness should be able to check in with a professional quickly, which is the beauty of a properly resourced and well-managed counselling centre.
Some students might be treated on campus with psychotherapy, others referred out to community health-care, others taught new tactics for tolerating sadness, fear and the after-effects of trauma.
While many institutions have expanded or overhauled mental health services, demand generally exceeds the supply.
But for those who do get help, the benefits can be dramatic. I have been a professor for 17 years, and long ago lost count of the formerly struggling students who have shaken my hand in hallways, or on graduation stages, to thank me for connecting them to the counselling office.