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.

 

 

 

 

Monday Assorted Links

1. Students’ grades determine where they eat lunch at Florida schools. While trying to process this, I was overcome by a strong desire to excise the peninsula along the Alabama-Georgia borders. Let it drift away I say.

2. Olympic marathon champ Jemima Sumgong banned four years for EPO. This is so common place, why doesn’t the Olympic Organizing Committee wait four years and distribute the awards right before the next game’s Opening Ceremony. And while we’re at it, let’s all agree to wait ten years to give wedding gifts. Make sure the relationship sticks before springing for that state-of-the-art toaster oven.

3. How to Get Entirely Tax-Free Retirement Income. An excellent explanation of why Health Savings Accounts rock.

4. When Your Shitty Health Insurance Doubles in Price.

“Remember, health insurance is not really health insurance. It’s just “large medical bill insurance” – a shaky precaution against having to pay for expensive procedures, so you can keep your investments instead of using them to pay the bills, perhaps eventually becoming poor enough that you are covered by public health insurance (Medicaid). A better name for it might be wealth insurance.”

5. Here’s why you may want to stop judging your emotions.

“. . . research from the University of California, Berkeley found that the pressure to feel upbeat can make you feel downbeat, while embracing your darker moods can actually make you feel better in the long run.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” said senior author Iris Mauss.

At this point, researchers can only speculate on why accepting your joyless emotions can defuse them, like dark clouds passing swiftly in front of the sun and out of sight.

“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention,” Mauss said. “And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”

On Honesty, Rigor, and Success in College

Recently, I spoke to a group of AmeriCorp volunteers at Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, WA. Many were University of Puget Sound graduates working in K-12 classrooms and tutoring after school at the church. I was told they wanted to know the answer to two questions. What is learning? And how do students learn?

The fact that these whip smart young people didn’t think they knew the answers to those questions communicates a hell of a lot about schooling today. Specifically, too few teachers take time from “teaching to the standards” and “collecting and analyzing data” to think together with students about the learning process.

The cynic in mean assumes self-assessment and student-led conferences are en vogue because some policy analysts think they’ll lead to higher test scores. What’s needed is a genuine, substantive commitment to intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Too few teachers “press pause on the class DVR” and ask what went well in today’s activity? What could have gone better? Which aspects of your group’s work went especially smoothly? Which parts were most challenging? When working with classmates, what do you do well? How do you know that? What could you improve upon? Why? What contributes to your learning? What thwarts it?

I asked the AmeriCorps to list a few meaningful things they’ve learned in the past. Looking for patterns and themes, I then asked them to reflect on how they learned them. “I’m learning how to cook,” one offered up, “by hanging out with roommates who are really good cooks.” We could have spent the entire two hours mining that gem of an anecdote.

When I turned to assessment, I implored them to honestly evaluate the quality of their high schoolers’ work. I said many of the secondary students they tutor get very good grades because they distinguish themselves by attending class regularly and turning in their work. Their simultaneous nodding communicated they understood this rarely talked about dilemma for many urban and rural poor districts and schools—you can’t fail the majority of your students, so students who attend and submit work get passing grades without nearly enough attention paid to the quality of their reading, thinking, math, and writing skills. Understandably, college admissions’ offices know and adjust for this, but that complicates those students’ transition to college.

Absent rigor, many students start to think of themselves as “A” students. But grade point averages can mislead. So it’s understandable that they’re sometimes devastated when they receive “C’s” on their first college assignments. Which is why I keep a box of kleenex handy in my office.

How can teachers, tutors, and parents help high schoolers come to grips with the fact that they may not be ready for college level work without those students giving in to a debilitating hopelessness? There’s no easy answer to that question, but passing students along without honestly assessing the quality of their work is inefficient and uncaring. Here are three starting points:

1) Impress upon them that their commitment to improving their skills is the single most important variable in determining whether they’ll catch up to their college bound peers and that closing the gap will take months and years of tireless work.

2) Invite successful college students from their community back to tell them that they too can overcome the same long odds if they commit to working hard and taking advantage of the resources available to them.

3) Make sure resources are in place, whether it’s well funded public schools, Peace Lutheran-like after school tutoring programs, or intensive summer remediation programs hosted by college campuses admitting first generation college students.

An Open Letter to High School Teachers

During Saturday morning’s 16-mile run, the high school princiPAL asked me to write his faculty about what they can do to increase the odds that their college-bound students are successful once at their universities of choice. Happy to, but I should note from the outset that I’ve massaged the request by focusing more exclusively on how to help the college bound improve as writers—a critical component to succeeding in college.

A confession. The following typology of first year students who struggle with the transition to college-level writing is an exercise in pre-writing, an incomplete, initial draft. Consider this a sneak-peak at my process. In the final draft, which needs to be framed positively, I’ll focus on what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

Some background. I was a high school social studies teacher for five years—four in Los Angeles and one in Ethiopia. I teach graduate pre-service teachers and first year writing seminars. It’s my Writing 101 teaching that informs what follows. More specifically, I’ve taught first year writing seminars at two liberal arts colleges over the last two decades on changing themes of my choosing including: Globalization; Reinventing the American High School; The Challenges and Rewards of Teaching; and currently, The Art of Living.

Here are five first year college student types that often struggle with the transition to college writing:

1) “Inflated Sense of Skills” student—This predicament is most common among students who graduated from high schools marked by serial absenteeism; unfinished, late student work; and missing assignments. Quite often, given the informal “not everyone can fail” grading curve at work in these schools, students who complete their work on time end up receiving very good marks without much attention to the quality of the work. These students develop identities as “A” students; consequently, it’s disorienting when they receive lower grades on their initial college papers. It’s difficult for these students to quickly adjust from being ahead of their high school peers to being behind their university ones who attended more rigorous high schools.

2) “Five Paragraph, Standardized Essay Exam” student—These students, who tend towards concrete-sequential thinking, have committed the standard five paragraph essay form to heart. They have become so adept at the five-paragraph essay—a thesis, three main points, three supporting details—that they think of writing as a “fill in the blanks” activity. As a result, their writing lacks voice and fails to engage readers.

3) “Grade Fixation” student—These students view writing like everything else school-related, as a no holds barred competition. The single-minded goal is to earn the highest possible grade on each individual paper. They resist the notion that writing is a process requiring continuous editing and they have an aversion to feedback. Continuous improvement is less important than earning “A’s”. These students tend to dislike writing.

4) “Narrow Repertoire” student—These students let it be known early on that they “love creative writing” and “dislike doing research papers”. Or less often, “love doing research papers” and “dislike creative writing”. Preferred forms are completely understandable, but these students’ sensibilities about their writing strengths and next steps are far too fixed.

5) “Interpersonally Challenged” student—These students struggle to interact thoughtfully with their classmates. They don’t listen attentively to others and/or maintain consistent eye-contact with whomever is speaking. Sometimes they talk over others and dominate discussions to the point that the other students eventually tune them out. As a result, these students fail to earn the respect of their classmates and don’t fully benefit from peer editing.

Stay tuned. By reflecting on this typology I’ll come up with what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

In Praise of Meghan Vogel

All the news isn’t bad. And maybe today’s youth aren’t a lost cause after all.

Sick and tired of big time college and professional sports? Knuckleheads running afoul of the law, the commercialism, the cheating, the excesses of competition. Then take a few minutes and read about how Ohio high school trackster Meghan Vogel (on the right below) recently stopped to help a fallen competitor across the finish line near the very end of the 3,200 meter final.

Maybe it’s an especially touching story because we mistakenly think competition is an elixir for all that ails us. Vogel’s decision highlights the power of cooperation. Her compassion and humble response to her fifteen minutes of fame inspire me. And the surprising decision by the meet officials not to apply the letter of the law and disqualify the two student-athletes warrants praise.

[But of course, all the news isn’t good on the adolescent front.]

Vogel, “I just did what I knew was right.” Credit: AP Photo/The Daily Call, Mike Ullery

How To Lose Your Principal’s Job

Tired of recalcitrant faculty, entitled students, absentee or helicopter parents, and after school sports supervision? Want to shift gears, go in a different direction? I’m here to help.

First decide whether you want to go “old school” or “new school”. If you want to go “old school”, like a Washington State principal a few months ago, follow these steps. First, drink yourself silly. Second, be a bad enough husband/wife that your spouse feels they have to file for divorce. Third, come completely unhinged at the dissolution of your marriage. Fourth, get arrested for Driving Under the Influence. And fifth, for good measure, buy a gun and threaten your spouse with violence. That should do it.

If that seems a little messy and you fancy yourself more modern, go “new school” like Louis Losos, former principal at Clayton High School in St. Louis. All you need is an internet connection and a fake Facebook account. Wired Magazine fills in the details:

A high school principal in Missouri has resigned after she was accused of impersonating a student on Facebook in order to spy on students and their parents, according to a news report.

Louise Losos, the principal of Clayton High School in St. Louis, is suspected of having created a fake Facebook account under the alias Suzy Harriston and “friending” hundreds of students, presumably in order to monitor their communications through their Facebook postings.

The account, whose profile picture depicted a group of penguins, was set up last year. More than 300 students accepted the “friend” request from “Harriston,” many of them Clayton High School students, before a student who received one of the requests posted a note warning others to stay away from the account because he believed the principal was behind it, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Whether you go out old school or new, know that legions of hopeful school administrators thank you.

Notes from the College Search

Spent Friday with the Good Wife and Sixteen visiting a private liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington—not the one with the very good Division 1 basketball team. The one with a very good Division 3 basketball team.

My main objective was not to embarrass Second Born by not saying or doing anything to bring myself attention. I was doing really well until mid-day. Early on we learned about the “Three Littles” that every student strives to accomplish. . . 1) get hit by a frisbee; 2) accidentally break a dish in the cafeteria; and 3) catch a “virgin” pine cone—meaning one that hasn’t hit the ground. In the middle of the campus tour, I faked catching a pine cone by droping to the rear, picking one up of the ground, then exclaiming to a few peeps around me, “Look, I did it. I caught a virgin pine cone.” Turned out more than a few people heard. Everyone liked my head fake except Golden Locks.

Thought one. A prediction. Higher education, like every other institution, is changing and will continue to change. However, the pace of change will be slower than the “experts” anticipate. Online “education”, or the cynic in me prefers, “internet coursework”, will continue to challenge the traditional “brick and mortar” model of schooling. Hybrid programs will become more common. But based on Friday’s sample of one, private, read pricey, residential liberal arts education is alive and well. “Spokane” University is thriving despite a relatively small endowment. It’s becoming more selective, it’s improving its already nice facilities, and it feels like there is a lot of positive momentum.

Thought two. A paradox. Many private liberal arts colleges offer financial aid packages that average 30-40% of the tuition and room and board “list price”. This coupled with Washington State’s public universities having to increase tuition 15% annually into the foreseeable future, means many families of high achieving students will find privates more affordable going forward. “Spokane” University has four merit-based scholarship tiers. The higher your grade point average and SAT or ACT score, the greater your financial aid. The second tier is a 3.7 and 1880 on the SAT if I remember correctly. That’s worth something like $15,000 each year. Any high schooler planning on going to college should think long and hard about taking any part-time job that might negatively impact their grades. You’d have to scoop ice-cream part-time at Baskin Robins for five years to make $15,000.

Thought three. Confirmation of a core belief. I believe economic anxiety explains most behavior these days. Especially, but not exclusively, middle and upper middle class parents of K-12 students. One of the day’s events was a panel discussion with four “Spokane” University students answering questions. Of the dozen or so questions asked during the hour, eleven were asked by parents. The only explanation I could think of for that was deep seated anxiety about their children’s futures. I wanted to tell the lady with red hair, who asked a few different questions, to “shut the hell up,” but I had already embarrassed TSwift once. Incredibly aggravating. Free parenting advice—at least try letting your son, who looked like a grown man to me, find his own way.

I took one picture. No, not of the beavers I saw on my run along the edge of the over flowing Spokane River, not of the baby ducklings, and not of the loquacious woman with red hair.

Dig the smart mix-use design

Finally, most importantly, make sure whatever college you decide to attend has plexiglass backboards.