“I Could Probably Go On”

The first year writing seminar is just past mid-semester. And somehow, despite the professor they were assigned, my first year writers have GOT IT. In place of the typical first year writer’s repeated use of the word “things” and other vague words and phrases, their third papers were peppered with specific details. That switch is almost universally positive. The exception? When they’re detailing their inner lives, like this student of mine, who gave me permission to share this with you.

“I can give a list of the things that are currently making me anxious in this moment: the anatomy test that I should be studying for (I got a 60% on it), if I’m going to pass my classes this semester, what classes I’m going to take next semester, if my friends really like me or just put up with me, the weight that I’m going to gain from the binge that I just had, if this essay is going to be any good, if I even want to go into nursing, what am I going to do with my life once I get out of college. I could probably go on but that was a long sentence as it is.”

My students seem fine on the surface, but as they get honest with themselves and me, I’m learning many are suffering in silence. Their willingness to share their stories with me is humbling.

All that I know to do is to assure them their feelings matter, a lot of their peers feel similarly, and I’m glad they’re in my seminar. Also, I encourage them to take advantage of the counseling available to them.

I don’t know if that’s enough.

Some Things I’m Learning About College Students’ Mental Health

  • Many are super stressed by their parents’ financial sacrifices.
  • Some parents from developing countries “don’t believe” in mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, so they discount its importance. They believe their young adult children can “will themselves” to feel better.
  • College is not as easy a time and place to make friends as is commonly thought. Loneliness is real.

Setting customary anxiety about academic performance aside, imagine worrying incessantly about your family’s finances and not having many friends to confide in. And then, not being able to talk to your parents about anything of substance.

 

What Can We Do To Improve Young Adult Mental Health?

My first year writing students are 18-19 years-old. Here’s the prompt for their first paper:

     Irvine argues that people often lack a “grand goal of living” and a coherent philosophy of life because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about specific reasons for living; instead it provides them with an endless stream of distractions. He contends you’ll most likely squander your life without a guiding philosophy. He adds that even if you have a “grand goal in living” and can explain its importance, it’s unlikely you will attain those things in life you take to be of greatest value if you lack an effective strategy that specifies what you must do as you go about your daily activities. Explain why you agree or disagree with Irvine’s assertions. Also, explain a few things you want out of life and why.

Irvine proposes an updated version of Stoicism as a guiding philosophy. Most of my writers find meaning in some stoic concepts, like the trichotomy of control, but generally aren’t down with Irvine’s thesis that they need a “grand goal of living”. Most argue they’re too young to have formulated very specific life goals, let alone one “grand” one. Often, they thoughtfully point out that a highly detailed roadmap doesn’t make sense given life’s unpredictability.

When it comes to what they want out of life, an increasing number want improved mental health. It’s difficult to overstate the extent of young adults’ anxiety today. When I listen to them describe their anxiety and depression in class and read about it in their papers I have two reactions. Overwhelming empathy and curiosity as to what the hell is going on.

The third episode of the Happiness Lab podcast with Laurie Santos, “The Silver Lining”, might provide a clue. It’s about our tendency to compare ourselves to others who we perceive to be the most well liked, the most social, the most wealthy, the most together, the seemingly most happy. The episode’s title comes from research into Olympic athletes that suggests bronze medal winners are much happier with their medals than silver medal winners because silver medal winners are focused on not having won gold while bronze medal winners are focused on everyone that didn’t medal at all. This concept, “point of reference”, partially explains why happiness can be so illusive.

A Cornell psychologist in the episode contends social media compounds this problem because everyone carefully curates their online image to appear artificially happy. Among other remedies, Stoics advocate for internal goals to counter our self-sabotaging “point of reference” tendencies.

The gravity of the situation has me convinced that there’s no one explanation to “what’s going on”. Another factor could be the pressure my (admittedly selective) students feel to have their adult lives figured out just as they’re beginning them—whether to go to college, how selective a one, how to pay for it, what to study, what internships and other resume building activities to pursue, whether to go to graduate school, which career path, which grand goal for shits sake.

Parents, intensely worried about the vagaries of the economy, and desperate for a return on their considerable college investment, think that if their young adult children just pick the right thing to study—nursing, engineering, and other pre-professional fields—and develop a detailed plan, their college graduate sons and daughters won’t end up living in their basements.

This was what I was thinking about when struck by a related idea during a recent run. This time of the year, in North Olympia, Washington, it’s pitch black when running before work. Most of the streets are not lit, sometimes there’s fog. My uber-headlamp provides about 20-25 yards of visibility.

North Oly roads roll with a constantly changing mix of gentle ups and downs. Picture ocean swells, the Palouse in Eastern Washington, or the Norwegian countryside. Normally, I realized during the run, seeing roads ahead tilt upwards plays with my mind. At least a little. “Here it comes,” I think, “this is gonna take a little more effort.” And then, “Okay, almost topping out, hang in.”

But on this pitch black, foggy, autumn run, there was no such internal dialogue because I COULDN’T SEE AHEAD. The only way I knew I was starting a climb was my breathing became more labored. “Oh, okay, climbing now.” Because I couldn’t see the road tilting upwards ahead of time, my mind was free of that small, subtle nagging dread of having to work harder. As someone whose prone to look too far down the road of life, I was digging running in the moment. Don’t tell me what’s ahead, let me just be present.

Freed of anticipatory dread, my mind turned to my students. They lament how their teachers, beginning in middle school, ask about their life plans. And how it continues through high school. And how their parents too often pressure them to have a plan.

Some of them end up crafting faux-plans just to stop the insanity. As a placeholder of sorts. Some, like a previous writing student, declare nursing upon entering college only to realize in the middle of our first semester seminar that they didn’t really like science.

Maybe we should give our high school graduates headlamps and encourage them to focus at most on the year ahead especially since life is fragile and no one is guaranteed a long life.

What if our message was this.

In the next year, while working, traveling, or going to college; focus on improving your health; nourishing your spirit; investing in new friendships; finding one way to make others’ lives better. Don’t worry unnecessarily about the mountains and valleys that lie ahead in the distant future. You’ll be okay. And if not, let me know how I can help.

Young adults’ mental health might improve.

 

 

 

 

Weekend Assorted Links

1. The Quick Therapy That Actually Works. Referred to as “microtherapy”.

“Effective solutions are crucial because Americans—stressed out, lonely, and ghosted by Tinder dates—are in desperate need of someone to talk to. The data suggest that most of the Americans who have a mental illness aren’t receiving treatment. About 30 percent of psychotherapists don’t take insurance. Quick interventions offer ‘something, when the alternative is nothing.'”

Research findings are hopeful, but skepticism is understandable.

“Lynn Bufka, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association, says that these types of brief interventions could be just a first step toward the treatment of various mental-health woes. They might be enough for some people, while others go on to get more intensive therapy. But. . . for more severe issues, such as bipolar disorder and major depression, a quick dose of therapy is unlikely to be enough. ‘These kinds of interventions are probably more likely to be beneficial before full-blown symptoms or disorders have developed.'”

2. An Echo Dot in Every Dorm Room.

“If students can’t or don’t want to spend money on their own smart speaker, Saint Louis University’s Echo Dots offer a way to bring voice assistants into the dorm without any added cost to the student, since the project went through the capital funding process and wasn’t funded by tuition increases.”

I’m calling bullshit on this. There is an opportunity cost. Money that is being directed to Echo Dots is money not being spent on something else like physical plant maintenance and that money for physical plant maintenance will come from students. I’m also very wary of the wholesale adoption of any technology. Maybe my thinking will change, but right now, if I were an SLU student, I would not want an Echo Dot.

3. The worrying future of Greece’s most Instagrammable island.

A Greek-American who has lived in Santorini for 12 years laments:

“‘People treat churches like selfie studios. There’s one in front of my house and people used to ring the bell every three minutes or climb up on the roof for their fake wedding shoots. I’d get woken up at 6am by people traipsing across my terrace.” His frustration at the crowds has led him to start hanging ‘respect’ signs around Oia that state ‘it’s your holiday… but it’s our home’.”

As if that’s not enough.

“The constant building and flood of tourists create tons of rubbish, which is all dumped illegally. Santorini still has no proper waste-management facilities, so all the empty water bottles, coffee cups and restaurant leftovers go into a huge dump which doesn’t meet EUregulations. Leakage is free to infect the surrounding earth, water and air.”

Alexa, find me someplace free of deranged photographers.

4. The Mistrust of Opposite-Sex Friendships.

The headline is misleading since the focus is on opposite-sex best friends.

This makes sense to me:

“Alexandra Solomon, an assistant psychology professor at Northwestern University and the instructor of the university’s Marriage 101 course. . . wonders whether the correlation between negative attitudes toward opposite-sex friendships and negative or violent expressions of jealousy could be due to participants’ personal beliefs about gender roles.

It speaks to a bit of a rigid, dichotomous way of thinking—I suspect there’s a layer in there about how much [the subjects] endorse traditional gender roles. . . . A woman with more traditional ideas about gender might feel threatened by her boyfriend’s female best friend because. . . ‘she may have this idea that I ought to be your one and only, and I ought to be able to meet all your needsIf you love me, then you’ll only turn to me.‘ A man with similarly rigid or traditional ideas about gender roles, she added, might feel territorial or possessive, as though his female partner belongs to him and only him.”

The more important, relevant question is about the potential for opposite-sex friendship more generally. I’ve long been intrigued by the tendency of friends to congregate in same sex circles at social gatherings. Even opposite-sex friendships of multiple decades seem relatively superficial. Opposite-sex friends seem to bump up against an invisible wall as if friendship is a zero-sum game. It’s that wall that intrigues me the most. More specifically, why the wall?

5. Waze Hijacked L.A. in the Name of Convenience. Can Anyone Put the Genie Back in the Bottle?

This was a hard read. Seemingly, my favorite app has no regard for the common good.

6. Elizabeth Warren Is Attracting More Supporters and More Media Attention.

An easy read. :)

Over Parenting

Parents, grandparents, and guardians of infants and young children cannot dedicate themselves enough to children’s well-being. Especially during the first ten years of life, every hour spent conversing with children; playing with them; helping them learn to enjoy sports, arts, and school tends to pay positive dividends later when they blossom into respectful, thoughtful, kind, independent, self-confident young adults.

But I’m not sure how to square that hypothesis with the fact that an increasing number of adolescents are suffering in silence with not just anxiety disorders and depression, but suicide, because many loving parents, grandparents, and guardians invest time and energy in those same silent sufferers.

As many are quick to point out, one thing that’s different these days is the pervasive influence of social media. The most shocking related statistic I learned lately is that 40 percent of teens say they use a device within five minutes of going to sleep, 36 percent admit to waking up to check a device, and 32 percent say they use a device within five minutes of waking up.

For parents the numbers are 26, 23, and 23.

If tonight Steve Kerr tweets that I’m needed in Golden State’s backcourt, or the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tweets that I’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize, I’m sorry, I’m not waking up. I know, sleeping straight through the night, how old fashion can I get?

To point to social media as the single most important variable is too simplistic. When it comes to something as complex as parenting and adolescent development, differences over time have to be multi-causal. So what else might explain what’s different today? Or to ask the same question differently, when it comes to raising relatively happy and mentally healthy young adults, what did my parents’ generation tend to get more correct?

I think the answer lies in one thing I notice about parenting today. Many super involved parents of young children seem wholly unable to disengage from their children’s lives as they move through adolescence into adulthood. More simply, compared to their parents, they stay way too involved, way too long. Having dedicated themselves so much early on, it’s as if they can’t help themselves. But somewhere between ages ten and twenty, parent involvement reaches a point of diminishing returns.

Many modern parents don’t realize that too much involvement can convey a lack of trust in young people’s abilities to learn from their mistakes and gradually become independent. Just yesterday, after some unsolicited advice, Youngest, who is building a photography business said to me, “And dad, I’m going to make mistakes because I’m new at this.”

I believe over parenting is contributing to an unhealthy, prolonged, co-dependence between parents and children. I have no idea how to restore some semblance of balance.

How about you?

Weekend Assorted Links

1. Tour du Rwanda? Click on the “continue reading” link to be transported to Central Africa.

2. My mom, who died four years ago today, liked to say, “Variety is the spice of life.” Apparently, not everyone agrees. Related, dad was a serious PB&J guy.

3. As Students Struggle With Stress and Depression, Colleges Act as Counselors. One reason tuition continues to rise much faster than inflation.

4. Is this the answer to my terrible, no good, awful commute?

5. I know some Specific Northwest Pressing Pausers who make regular trips to the Swamp. Instead of exacerbating climate change, maybe they should consider this.

6. Why some parents pay bribes to get their kids into more selective colleges.

I Was Wrong

No, not about how to properly load the dishwasher, I’m very right about that.

I was wrong about the merits of Positive Psychology, a newish subfield of psychology dedicated to the study of happiness or “subjective well-being”. When I read the literature, I believed it was based upon solid social science. Ruth Whippman taught me otherwise.

As referenced in Michael Schien’s subtly titled Forbes piece, “Positive Psychology is Garbage”, Barbara Ehrenreich does the same in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Writing in Forbes, Schien explains Seligman’s success, the pseudo-intellectual founder of the movement:

“When describing his concepts, Seligman uses big words about statistics, mathematical equations, and empirical data. For most of us, this serves as the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat—it seems authoritative, so we don’t question it.”

Guilty as charged. Later, he adds:

“It’s a lesson you would do well to follow. When trying to get people to pay you for your ideas, present them in terms that have the whiff of science whenever possible. Equations. Data. Statistical analysis. Remember, it’s not that the science itself actually matters, it’s the appearance of science that counts.”

I’m left believing happiness is partly the result of being born to happy parents. Other things that tip the balance from despair to joy include a good night’s sleep, a few close friends, healthy food, sunshine, art, physical activity, and socially redeeming work.

But without equations, data, and statistical analysis, I don’t expect anyone to pay my list any attention.