By May S. Ruiz
In an article which published last April in Time magazine, Katie Reilly reported that record numbers of college students are seeking treatment for anxiety and depression, and schools can’t keep up. She further described that when UCLA offered, for the first time, all incoming students a free online screening for depression, more than 2,700 students opted in.
Following that article, UCLA announced the launch of its ‘Depression Grand Challenge.’ This project, that spans a decade, will study 100,000 of students who have used its health care system for any reason. It is a sweeping initiative that brings to the fore the mental health issues that have long existed but have never been fully addressed until now.
However, anxiety and depression often predate college. High school students, most especially in the San Gabriel Valley, are faced with daunting competition when they start applying to colleges. Students in the area have earned perfect GPAs, SAT, and ACT scores; were the president of their school’s Student Council; have played at least one musical instrument, have won multiple gold Young Musicians’ Competition awards, and have performed at Carnegie Hall; have been deeply involved in a social, community, or philanthropic cause. They are over-scheduled, sleep-deprived, and hell-bent to stand out from other over-achievers. It’s no wonder, then, that they are riddled with anxiety that often leads to depression.
David Burge, who just completed his term as the President of NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) states, “There is no doubt that the college application and selection process is daunting and is a cause of much of the anxiety and depression on high school campuses.
“What we’re finding is that there are more and more students in high school who are receiving treatments for anxiety and depression, including medication and talk therapy. So it’s only natural for them to continue to seek treatment when they get on the college campus. Sometimes the stress of college accentuates their pre-existing conditions.”
“We, at NACAC, are teaching students and parents to look beyond the Ivies and the most selective universities when they embark on their college search. As long as we continue to value exclusivity as a surrogate for quality, the competition perpetrated by these very universities will continue,” Burge pronounces.
To say, though, that the college application is the reason for the mental health concerns plaguing our country’s youth is too simplistic.
Myra McGovern, Vice-President for Media at NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools), says, “The theories about why today’s students are going through anxiety and depression run the gamut. Some are backed by science and some are anecdotal. One of the things I’ve heard is that parents these days aren’t doing much about the issue because they think their generation had it harder.
“Some of us think that children didn’t get to experience the violence of wars and the hardship that accompanied such, which made them more fragile. But one could argue that children have seen more wars in their lifetime. There have been more media coverage of school shootings, that began in Columbine; and of terrorism and international threats, since 9-11.”
“I think that while the potential dangers may not have statistically grown, the exposure brought on by media has increased dramatically,” explains McGovern. “In the past, most teenagers didn’t read the newspapers; but these days, through social media, they know what’s happening in the world in real time.
“Consider your biological fear response – from the adrenaline rush, to the tightening in your chest and the dry mouth – when you hear of something horrible happening. Our body hasn’t really changed from the time of lions chasing people. Yet we’re more exposed to technological lions (stimulus) when our survival instinct hasn’t quit adapted to technological reality.”
McGovern elaborates, “Perhaps, too, children’s increased interface through technology is changing the way they relate and cope. The social pressures the older generations had to contend with are definitely different from what today’s youth deal with.
“There’s also our perception of our role as parents. Because of our own anxieties about our children’s lives, we are constantly hand-holding them and, in the process, taking away some of the opportunity for them to practice making decisions. It affects their confidence level at being able to navigate the challenges the world throws at the them as they become teenagers and young adults.”
“Another theory has to do with what people are consuming and the chemicals they’re exposed to,” adds McGovern. “But whatever the cause is, there’s a consensus that children and adults are struggling more with anxiety and depression.
“What I want to emphasize is that I don’t believe there’s one right solution for everyone. Part of the solution is considering children as individuals with specific needs. Prioritizing to invest in our future on the front end could reap benefits in the long term,” McGovern concludes.
Building the groundwork for sending happy and healthy kids to high school and beyond is a mandate that John Finch, headmaster of Chandler, a K-8th grade school in Pasadena, takes to heart.
“We establish an environment where there are high expectations, but low stress,” Finch declares. “We pay careful attention to the volume of work we ask the students to do. We don’t try to fit round pegs into square holes – we provide a program that meets their needs and adjust our program so that each child feels recognized, respected, and challenged.
“As we challenge our students, requiring them to do good work, we are equally careful about how we manage expectations. We have to be mindful that doing otherwise leads us to the same path we’ve been going on, with more kids falling out in the end.”
“Socially, we want to create an environment where children are kind to each other, respect and help each other,” states Finch. “We’re intolerant when it comes to bullying. At the same time, we want to establish an atmosphere where kids can be resilient and gritty. We want for them to pursue their interests by trial and error. And if they fail, we’ll help them try again. We want kids to understand they’re being supported by a tight adult network that encourages them. We want them to feel that there’s a balanced foundation of care and love.”
Finch points out, “I think students who spend too much time on screens and not enough time interacting with others can become isolated and lonely. That isolation and loneliness can manifest themselves in anxiety and depression. We have to be cautious, conscientious, and deliberate in urging our kids to shut their screens down, to spend more time interacting and socializing with friends and family.”
“Increasingly, I hear principals say their biggest concern is not so much the achievement, but the well-being of their students,” discloses Finch. “Something’s changing and we have to find the cause and respond accordingly. We’re not doing kids any favor if they’re leaving our schools feeling anxious or depressed – whether it’s because they’re over-burdened by expectations, they feel something is lacking, or they can’t cope with the independence they get as they grow older.
“Ten years ago schools were adding technology and computer positions. Now schools are augmenting learning and emotional support. Once we saw that technology had a transformative impact on the program, the next step was to become intentional in meeting the social and emotional needs of students.
“For us, it’s been helpful to have a buddy program. Older kids interact with the younger ones to give them a sense of responsibility and community obligation. For younger kids, it’s a way for them to look up to older students as role models. Those friendships that develop in multi-age groups make a vast difference in school life.”
“We also have a school psychologist to give professional help,” adds Finch. “Teachers meet regularly and when they hear a student’s name come up more than once as someone who’s not completing work, is tired, or isn’t eating well, they let the administrator know.
“There have been circumstances when kids approached the administrator to say they’re worried about one of their friends. We investigate all these observations and we bring in the psychologist whenever it’s warranted.”
“In a small private school with an adult-student ratio of 1 to 7, it’s very hard for the child to slip through the cracks,” assures Finch. “We’re capable of arresting something before it becomes too dark. And we make sure we have the support and place to take care of it.
“I’m interested in empowering teachers to not only provide excellent teaching but, more importantly, to look after the welfare of students in their charge. At the same time, I also know that families are our partners in addressing the issues of anxiety and depression.”
It’s heartening to know that parents, teachers, and school administrators are acknowledging that there is a mental health problem affecting a large number of students. It is a first step in the right direction.
That schools are also now taking active measures to help students get through their anxiety and depression is certainly a lifeline for those who’ve been feeling despondent and alone. There is hope yet.