Could Unlearning Help Our College Mental Health Crisis?

College life can be overwhelming. Mental health problems are ravaging students, and the high rates of distress seen across campuses are being framed as the "college mental health crisis". Our students have learned from an early age to hyper-focus on individual performance, taking the bait like mice on cheese hoping to jockey their way towards so-called "success". This plays out in classrooms across the world, disrupting student learning and well-being. It makes me wonder if we might be missing the point of learning, and undermining the tremendous value education can bring.

Someday, when my college students have finally caught their breath after enduring the mental gymnastics associated with juggling borderline cruel schedules, I want them to look back and realize:

I cared enough to give you honest feedback. It was never about points or letters. Your grades don't define you. Despite the initial sting, I was impressed by your resolve to improve and not take it as a moral failing on your part or some sort of power trip vendetta on mine.

I wasn't the only expert. You and your classmates brought rich perspective to the classroom. Our greatest asset was our differences, and even though there wasn't always consensus, each vantage point contributed to the collective conversation, and we are all better for it.


True learning is unlearning. We have a great deal of unlearning to do. We must think with as much care and caution as humanly possible. We are filled with far too much bias and centric ways, leading to inaccurate judgments and decisions. We simply can't Google and go, buying into everything being sold to us. As Grace McGarvie put it "Tradition is an explanation for acting without thinking". It may seem like a novel idea in today's polarized socio-political climate, but we must think before we act.

Curiosity didn't kill the cat. If I've done my job well, you've ended up with far more questions than answers. This is the secret of being truly educated. The more you know, the less you know. The disorienting moments that come with this are far more useful (and honest) than being sure all the time.

You've still got your work cut out for you. Your work doesn't end once you've been handed the coveted diploma. Across the world, less than 5% have opportunities for formal schooling. I hope you relish in that, and take seriously the importance of taking what you've gained and sharing it. It's not about personal accomplishments or success. Your growth and betterment can lead to the growth and betterment of many.

I believe in your resilience. You're a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. I know you were angry when I wouldn't "just round your grade up a little", but I maintain my reasons. It's not about being the best, or constantly at ease, but knowing you can bounce back, even when you've taken a risk and failed, or had a setback. Keep cultivating your resilience-you'll need in it your personal and professional life over the long haul. Your grit is quite impressive-especially given everything you have on your plate.

Most of all, I'm so glad to have you as a colleague now. Your inspiration and intellect are needed gifts in our world. I'm not here just to write obligatory reference letters for you, but to keep linking arms to strive towards a more just, thinking, and caring world. We're in this together. And I hope you're as psyched about that as I am.

Dr. Kristen Lee Costa is a behavioral science professor, therapist and author of Reset: Make the Most of Your Stress, named motivational book of 2015.


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