Mental Health

A recent story about the spate of suicides at Tulane University raises several important questions. As the story tells us, in part,

No college is immune. The problem is growing, and it’s universal. Universities are welcoming a generation of students who are more anxious than ever, and who appear to be cracking under the weight of the growing pressure to get into a good college and then to pay for it. Society burdens kids with this pressure, and then sends them off to college to deal with it. At the heart of the wrenching debate is a touchy question: How much responsibility do colleges really bear for the psychological well-being of their students?

The question at the end seems to be the central one. But let’s take a look at the suggestion — which we hear a great deal — that today’s students are under more pressure than their predecessors. As one who has been connected with academia for the vast majority of his life, I have made the claim, which I stand by, that students have always been under pressure. Indeed, one could argue students were under even more pressure before the average grade became an A-. Previous generations had to meet much more stringent academic standards, most had to work their way through college and face such things as the draft. In a word, there was a great deal of pressure to succeed. In fact, there were frequent suicides in colleges that were  explained on the grounds that the students feel anxious because of the pressure to get good grades in competition with other students who are as bright or even brighter than they are. In high school this was not the case because high schools have a much broader spectrum of students, the bright students tending to feel less competition.

Whatever the case may be, it’s a moot question whether there have been more suicides in colleges and universities recently. But if we allow that the problem has grown, it does seem to me that this simply reflects an anxious age in which suicide in our culture as a whole is doubtless more frequent than it may have been in past years. For one thing, there are more people on earth now than ever before: it is becoming very crowded and the pace of life is faster than ever. For another thing in this country, at least, corporate agendas have taken priority in Washington and as a result the problems that increasing numbers of folks are becoming aware of, including the bright college students, are being largely ignored by those we elect to address them. This surely adds to the stress. And with families struggling to pay the bills, the kids growing up tend to be ignored and must feel a lack of connection with those they love. This increases the anxiety levels as well. So it’s not just college students who feel the pressure.

But the question at the end of the story above is central to the discussion. How much responsibility do the colleges bear to solve this problem? To what extent are they responsible for the “psychological well-being of their students?” I once argued that colleges are only responsible for training young minds, setting them free from prejudice and stupidity in preparation for a chaotic and ever-changing world. The family and the church mold character. I still maintain that, since I have seen what happens when the colleges start to address social problems and their sense of purpose becomes fragmented: they lose their focus and in trying to do everything they do nothing well.

I still maintain that their primary focus should be on training young minds. I would also add that no matter how busy they are, parents should be more involved in the lives of their children and many of these anxieties could be dealt with before they become mental health issues. And our churches should do more to attract young people who are staying away in droves. At the same time, colleges should assuredly be aware that the students feel pressures and there should be professionals available for counseling. But this concern must be secondary for the reasons given above: colleges and universities cannot be all things to all people. They cannot solve all of our society’s problems. But they can address them by training young minds to deal with those problems in new and creative ways. That is what colleges and universities are designed to do and what they do best — when they remain focused on their central purpose.

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9 thoughts on “Mental Health

  1. I certainly agree with your conclusions about college’s responsibility towards the “well being” of students. They have enough on their plate.

    I also agree that the stress today is not likely anywhere more than in the past. I had to deal with a draft overhanging me (If one didnt get their degree in 4 years, it was off to the Army for them), working two jobs to pay for school, and finding time to study and research. Perhaps the stress levels are merely more widely reported today.

    Thanks for a good post, and your periodic calling out of the foolishness that sometimes surrounds todays children and their helicopter parents.

    • I think you put your finger on it: the problem is more widely reported today. It’s part of our indulgence and worship of the god Youth!! Thanks, Barney.

  2. Hugh, good post. Couple of comments. I think colleges are doing a yeoman’s job on addressing the counseling needs. The problem is the magnitude of the need. The waiting lists to see a counselor is long, so some colleges have tapped professionals in the area to backfill. The need is increasing, not shrinking, I think due to many of the issues you have noted in earlier blogs. These kids go off thinking college will be nirvana and it turns out that it is not and you have to work, as well. The kids are ill-prepared for that environment, especially when told they are great.

    By the way, I thought of you when I saw a statistic, which I will get wrong, but the magnitude will be in line. In 1950, kids were asked if they were important and about 12% said they were. In 2000, the kids felt they were important 84% of the time. The lack of awareness of self is setting people up to have challenges. You have been saying this for a few years. Thanks professor for enlightening, BTG

    • It’s a theme I have been falling back on for quite a while, and the thesis of one of my books as well. The generations are becoming increasingly encased in themselves. Ortega y Gasset pointed it out many years ago. I just took my lead from him.

    • oh my; that 1950s vs 2000 stat report is interesting. there was another study that compared how happy people are now vs about that same era.. they found that long ago people worked harder physically, and at the end of the day they could look back and see the results of their work. they were tired, but a good tired, and they were much happier.

      • In the age of entitlement kids don’t have to work and accomplish something to feel good about themselves: they are told they are terrific simply because they can breathe. So why work??

  3. i read this earlier and then again today; it’s especially sobering today b/c a distant friend/business acquaintance took his life today. i’m still waiting on details. loss of friends from suicide has touched my life way too many times, and i remain ultra sensitive when it comes to giving others the benefit of the doubt. we never know what undertow is at work behind the scenes.

    after i learn details, i’ll write a short post.

    thanks again for all you do for others and for encouraging and mentoring many.

    z

    • Indeed. Suicide is nothing to be made light of. My father committed suicide. And thanks for the thanks. But I expect you do a great deal more with your beautiful creations and upbeat outlook!

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