There was an Television advertisement last year in which a student and his parents give each other a tearful farewell as he leaves for his first year of school. Immediately, the scene shifts to the parents celebrating their son's departure by remodeling his room into the den they always wanted. The message of the advertisement was clear: "Parents, now you are free to use your money to buy things you always wanted and to remodel your lives because you are free. The message is false for many families.
The fact is that, as students leave home to either begin college for the first time, or to resume their studies after the long summer vacation, they face a whole host of emotional problems as evidenced by a survey conducted by the universities during 2008 and recently reported by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The information is sobering and parents need to be aware of what is happening with their sons and daughters while they are away at school.
According to the APA, college students in large numbers face such problems as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders. According to the 2008 survey 30& of students are so depressed that they find it difficult to function at school. An astonishing 49% admit to experiencing an overwhelming amount of anxiety and 6% consider suicide.
Part of the culture of attending college is using alcohol to relax and have fun. While some young people are able to keep their drinking under control, there are others who drink to excess, engaging in binge drinking chugging alcohol so that they actually risk their health and lives. If this is not bad enough, many of these young people seem unaware of the fact that this type of alcohol consumption further complicates their depression and anxiety. It is a common feature of major depression for people to drink to excess in an attempt to self medicate, yet, increasing their hopeless feelings.
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Alcohol is not the only substance of abuse on campuses across the nation. I can report, after having treated many college students, that they also abuse methamphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy and many other substances.
For many young men and women, eating disorders rise to the surface if they had not done so prior to college. Most women report that they briefly engaged in bulimic types of behavior at least once. However, many others get caught up into full blown bulimia. This means that they binge eat and purge in an attempt to control their weight. Others become trapped into anorexia, fearing they are gaining weight and avoiding their meals.
Contrary to the television commercial mentioned above, it is vital that parents remain in touch with their children while they are away at college. That does not mean that they should hover over them, call constantly or interfere with their campus experience. However, it does mean that they should listen carefully when and if their sons or daughters complain about school, report feeling lonely or show symptoms of stress that are uncommon for them.
It is not uncommon for students to find that they are attending the wrong college or university because life is not what they expected. For example, some students who believed they would feel comfortable at a large university, instead, experience alienation and isolation. For many of them, transfer to a smaller and more personal school allows them to function more happily. In addition, complaints about roommates are a common problem during the first year of school. If there is a poor fit among the youngsters occupying a dorm room it can overflow and interfere with every aspect of daily life.
The point is that parents should not dismiss these concerns when their children are complaining. Rather, all options should be kept open.
It is also important to point out that colleges and universities all have medical and counselling facilities because they are well aware of fact emotional crises that afflict students. Unfortunately, their have been suicides in school across the nation and there have been deaths resulting from alcohol poisoning.
This article is not meant to frighten. Rather, it is meant to convey to parents and students the importance of taking complaints seriously and not be dismissive. Also, if you son or daugher is asking for psychotherapy services to a larger extent than the college may provide, encourage them to ask for an off campus referral.
Be aware of the medical and psychological services available to you at your school. No need to feel ashamed because you are in good company. Depression and other problems are a national concern. You are not alone. Please reach out for help. In terms of help, there is psychotherapy and, sometimes, anti depressant medications with psychotherapy is the best combination. If the health services on campus do not provide full psychotherapy but only brief psychotherapy, there are always referrals to therapists who are off campus.
Students, parents and everyone else:
Your comments, questions and experiences are welcome and encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD