What To Do About The Mental Health Epidemic Among Students? A Different Approach.

“Universities,” writes Harry R. Lewis, the former Harvard dean, “have forgotten their larger educational role for college students: to help them figure out who they are and what their purpose in the world should be.”

William Deresiewicz

The mental health epidemic among students continues to be a growing concern, and the situation won’t change until colleges and universities recognise they are, to a large extent, part of this problem. This situation won’t change until we shake up the educational status quo and the “business as usual”, which is manufacturing another generation with diplomas, with some academic knowledge, but with no idea how to use it or how to go about life. We can expect no changes if we’re not willing to imagine what being a student today feels like, if we are only interested in them and their problems, not before but only after they reach a mental breakdown. This is why I would like to ask you to imagine yourself in one or both of the following scenarios, before I move on to discuss the problem and solutions in more detail.

Scenario number one. Imagine you are in college or at university where you are studying for a degree. You are there because you were pushed by your parents or because you were told that having a degree will guarantee or, at the very least, help you have a bright future. You haven’t chosen to go to college or university as part of a well-thought plan for the future or because you are genuinely interested in the subject you chose to study, or because you are passionate about it. So, you attend classes you don’t really care about; you don’t really understand why you need to study the material you are given, and you are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the information you absorb, and stressed out about having to remember it all during your exams. Somehow, you memorise the information, but you “dump” it as soon as exams are finished. It evaporates from your brain, at least for the most part. So now, you’re left with nothing but a grade, maybe even a good one.

In the meantime, you enjoy the student life, a little or a lot. You made friends. You partied with them, smoked weed, had “a few” shots or beers, and then it’s over. It’s time to graduate. And you have no idea what to do with your life. Forget about life. You don’t even know what to do with your degree, because you didn’t know why you studied for it in the first place. You don’t know what career to choose. You don’t know how to figure it out. Everyone congratulates you on your achievement, but when the celebrations end, questions about your plans and ambitions start. Everyone seems to push for answers. But you have no answer. You become increasingly anxious about your future. You wonder if the three or five years you spent studying for a degree were a complete waste of time.

On a top of that, you might be sitting on a pile of student debt. Now, you are stressed and depressed. You haven’t taken any action toward that bright future you’re supposed to have; instead, you feel like you have somehow already failed. But you hear people saying how this is the best time of your life, that you can do anything, that there’s a whole life and so many options ahead of you. But the only option you see, at this point, is to stay in bed and numb yourself with Netflix and/or Facebook. Browsing Facebook also turns out to be depressing. There, everyone seems to have it all figured out. Everyone’s life seems better than yours. So, you feel even worse about yourself. Maybe you drink or take drugs to help yourself.

Eventually, you get a job because you need to eat or because your parents are no longer willing to host you under their roof. So, you end up in a low-paid job or a maybe a well-paid job, but either way, you are there for the paycheck. Your life begins at 5 pm on Fridays and ends at 9 am on Mondays. You hate your job, but you can’t see the way out. You have long forgotten about your dreams and your plans. You become more and more bitter and cynical. People who seem to live a meaningful and fulfilling life simply annoy you. And then, one day, you’re hit by the “mid-life” crisis, or maybe (and hopefully not) some tragedy, or you came across a book, or maybe you struck up a conversation that prompted you to say enough is enough, and you begin to rethink, rebuild and recreate the life you should have lived from the start.

Scenario number two. Imagine you are studying at college or at university because it is a part of your well-thought plan. You want to be a student. You want to learn. You are excited when you think about attending classes and learning new things. You have always had good grades, and those good grades got you to where you are now, a prestigious university, perhaps. Your parents are proud, your family is proud, and damn, you are proud of this achievement. You show up to all the classes you were told to attend and told where to attend them. You study the material someone told you to study and how much to study to get the highest grades. You don’t get to think more deeply on any of the subjects, because there is no time for it. You’re also not sure why you need to study all this “stuff” and how it relates to your career and life down the line, but you trust that someone does.

In the meantime, you feel stressed about all the extracurriculars. How will you study for the exams and do that? These are very important, you’re told. They will “land” on your CV and eventually “land” you a great job. So, you sign up to do many things. You don’t really think about what or why you chose them, as long as they are done and ticked off the list and, above all, they look good on the paper. It doesn’t even occur to you that you might want to enjoy them. But now, you are exhausted and even more stressed. You don’t really get to hang out and be a student, because, you guessed it, there is no time. So, you feel isolated and lonely. Now that you have studied hard, covered all the extracurriculars, you graduate with a well-deserved diploma. The celebrations end, and it’s time to think about life.

You don’t really know what you want to do with your life, but you know what’s expected of you. You have been an excellent student, studying at an excellent university; you are expected to head for an excellent career. So, you are at your desk, in a prestigious company, with an impressive job title, the status that comes with it, and an equally impressive pay-check. You have accomplished what you were expected to accomplish, but you’re not happy, and you wonder why. Maybe, at some point, inspired by an event, a book or a person, you realise you never had the time to figure out that no one taught you how to figure out what you wanted to do in life, so you do it now.

The two scenarios are two generalised images, but they are also a reality experienced by many students today. Too many, I should say. One must be willing to imagine oneself in either of these scenarios (and the many variations of them) to understand why we are dealing with a mental health epidemic today. In the UK, 1 in 4 students suffers with mental issues according to YouGov survey, and in the US, 1 in 4 young adults between the ages of 18-24 has a diagnosable mental illness, according to National Alliance of Mental Health. The problem affects many more countries across the globe. Sir Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of Buckingham University, who frequently speaks and writes about mental health problems among students, argues:

Despite the best efforts of many across all universities, students’ mental health continues to be a growing problem and one that urgently needs to be tackled before even more misery is caused and more students take their lives.

I’m just not sure whether colleges and universities make their best efforts to address the problem. There are many that do and where students’ well-being is genuinely treated as a priority and where everyone across the board, from the dean or chancellor, teachers to counsellors are actively seeking solutions. But I’m of the view that, mostly, students’ well-being isn’t at the top of academic agendas. Colleges and universities have become “factories” with multiple factory lines focused on launching two products: “the research” and “the students with their diplomas.” The better the products, the better their place in the annual university rankings. What they do to enhance students’ mental health and well-being, these rankings do not consider. It’s about time they should.

Counselling and career advice services fail to help solve the problem. If they did, we would not be talking about the mental health epidemic today. Not that they don’t try or that I am trying to undermine their work. I am convinced there are individuals working within these services, who are genuinely concerned about students’ well-being and are doing their utmost to help them. But there are those who don’t, and it needs to be said. They work for the paycheck, probably don’t like their jobs, and wish they were someone else. If they don’t like their jobs, they don’t care, and if they don’t care, they can’t and won't help. There are those who are lost, overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, willing to help but unsure how to do that. And then, there is perhaps the worst group, those who stubbornly cling to the way “they do things”, unwilling to consider new ways. When offered a new solution, they reject it out of hand. This is where caring about students stops and where self-interest and holding to their jobs begins. It is futile to expect a true change, as far as students’ well-being is concerned, when those who should be at the forefront of this work are uninterested or self-serving and afraid of change.

To address the problem, we don’t need more policies, more reports, more systems. We need people in colleges and universities who genuinely care! Career advice offices fail in guiding students properly. It isn’t their fault. They were designed this way. They can and are helpful to students as far as the practical aspects of finding a career or applying for a job are concerned, such as preparing a good CV or offering advice on how to prepare for a successful job interview etc. They are good at guiding, in a practical way, students who know what they want to do but are of no or little use to those who have no clue. More importantly, we are dealing with two fundamental obstacles in the attempts to solve students’ mental health problems: first, it is the educational system producing young people with diplomas who, as William Deresiewicz, points out:

Have no idea what to do with their lives, no sense of purpose and what is worse, no understanding how to go about finding one, who can follow an existing path but don’t have the imagination or the courage, or the inner freedom to invent their own.

And second, the unwillingness or an inability to recognise the above, as one of the major causes behind students’ mental problems. So far, colleges and universities have been, mostly, managing the symptoms without examining the causes. And we need to recognise it is only by looking at the causes that we can find the solutions, and rather than only managing the mental problems among students, we can prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Fortunately, there are colleges and universities that do just that! Unfortunately, they are not very many. That’s because only a few will recognise the educational system must go back to treating students as humans, not clients solely interested in the product, the diploma. They acknowledge times have changed and the way they educate needs to change with them, and adjust to the new demands posed by the changing economy and the job market that changes with it. The college/university diplomas no longer guarantee a job or a career, not to mention one you’ll hold on to for the rest of your life.

Career paths are fluid, ever-changing, and increasingly unpredictable, and more than ever, young adults must have the skills to navigate through life and the changing circumstances. They need to think creatively, to explore ideas, to be entrepreneurial. It is no longer enough to know what you want to do but why you want to do it. This demands looking at the bigger picture of life and bigger, deeper questions about purpose, values one upholds, and the meaning of life. Young people today must be able to think for themselves. They need to know how to figure things out. So they need to be given time and space to reflect on their future goals, on what they truly want versus what is expected of them. They need to think about their careers in a way that goes beyond merely getting a job with a pay check.

Right beside the academic knowledge they gain during their time at the college/university, they must gain self-knowledge. This lack of self-knowledge leads to depression, stress, and anxiety, and when those are not addressed, they escalate and more serious mental issues develop. Universities and colleges that truly have students’ well-being at heart also recognise the fact, as William Deresiewicz rightly points out, that:

There is an intense hunger among students today (...) for what college ought to be providing but it is not: for the larger sense of purpose and direction, for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions in life; for a simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.

And:

Self-knowledge is the most practical thing in the world because it helps you find your way to a career that’s right for you.

Unfortunately, many (if not most) academic institutions do not recognise that, because it genuinely hasn’t occurred to them yet or because they think educating the student’s self isn’t the university’s job. The proponents of this kind of education, those who see a strong correlation between the lack of self-knowledge and mental health issues among students, are often criticised and even ridiculed. Education focused on personal growth has its place in yoga retreats, weekend evening seminars, or in India’s ashrams, not in Academia! And that’s where the root cause of the problem lies. As William Damon, rightly points out:

One unfortunate results of this is that young people rarely are encouraged to identify a calling for themselves. Rather, in a misguided attempt to be realistic, we often counsel young people to see a vocation that will merely secure them a living, leaving the ideal of a calling as a figment of romantic fantasy.

It is this attitude and clinging to the status quo, to how things have always been done even if what’s being done isn’t working, are greatly to be blamed here. If it is not the status quo, it is the individual university agendas, most commonly at prestigious universities, where students are expected to follow certain paths, where students are deliberately directed toward prestigious and well-paid jobs but not necessarily fulfilling ones. “Fulfilling” or “meaningful” are not words that sell well in promotional materials; “prestige”, “status”, “power” do. I am not suggesting colleges and universities, should educate students for either one or the other. I suggest they can educate students for both and they should recognise:

Finding a career - writes Lara Galinsky in “Work on Purpose” - that draws on your knowledge and abilities is important, but doing work that fulfills the needs of your heart is equally crucial.”

It is, frankly, quite striking that themes such as the deeper meaning of life, life’s purpose, finding a true calling are always referred to during opening and graduate ceremonies. The reason speakers allude to these themes is because they have lived life, because they learnt, often the hard way, and maybe even too late, or forced by their “mid-life crisis” to reflect on the deeper meaning of their lives, their work, their accomplishments. Why can’t we allow students to have the time and space to reflect on these themes before they make important life choices, not in the beginning or the end of their education, but in the “middle” of it? To dismiss these themes as “vague” or “too philosophical” or too “woo-woo” only shows the closed-minded attitude of these people to something new and to change. I’m not sure what’s more “woo-woo” - educating students to know themselves, to make well-thought conscious choices, to helping them find a career that’s not attractive because of its status and pay check, but one that gives them a sense of purpose and one they simply enjoy, or is it more “woo-woo” to continue “the business as usual”, manufacturing another generation with diplomas, with some academic knowledge, but with no idea how to use it or how to go about life?

As I mentioned earlier, there are academic institutions that recognise academic knowledge is very important, but so is self-knowledge and students can and should be educated and graduate equipped in both. Let’s look at some examples. A few years ago, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, both engineers and teachers at Stanford’s design school, noticed their students had real trouble figuring out what to do with their lives. Bill and Dave came up with an idea. They taught students how to use the design thinking to design their personal and professional lives. The initiative had humble beginnings and started with a small voluntary group of students who gathered to reflect on their lives. They thought not just about what careers they wanted but why they wanted them. They looked at how their career choices would fit into the bigger picture of life. They were taught how to figure things out, how to generate ideas. The result? Less or no fear about their future, which meant less stress and more confidence in their ability to design the future they wanted for themselves, even if different choices were expected of them. So, not surprisingly, the class became the most popular course at Stanford, so popular it is now part of the curriculum with the many variations of the course aimed at different groups of students, depending on where they are. Those who took Design Your Life class:

Were “better able to conceive of and pursue a career they really wanted; they had fewer dysfunctional beliefs and an increased ability to generate new ideas for their life design.”

Or, let’s look at the class founded and taught by Professor G. Richard Shell at Wharton Business School. Just like Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, he noticed a lot of confusion among students when they tried to decide on their career paths and their future. In his book Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search For Success, he explains how he:

Discovered that examining the idea of “success” provided more meaningful way to help them reflect on their goals and identities.

He wanted to give both students and faculty an opportunity to “talk directly and candidly about life goals and success concepts in classroom.” Students are encouraged through relevant literature and exercises to question and reflect on the concept of “success” (commonly equated with money, status or fame). They learn to question this externally motivated idea of success and are encouraged to search and examine internal motivations instead. Professor Shell, like many other educators today, recognise that students:

(...) all alike are seeking help to solve some fairly complicated problems: how to get along better with others, how to get ahead in their careers, and find meaning in their lives. They just need a little help.

And help they get. Neither Bill and Dave nor Professor Shell were coaches or counsellors. They were teachers who simply cared and who found a way to help!

Inspired by these examples, I have designed my own course aimed to give students time and space to think about their lives, their goals, their values, their gifts and talents etc. But I added another element, which turned out to be even more important. I talked to students about the role of mindset. I wanted them to understand how their mindset (their beliefs, their attitudes, their feelings, and emotions) influences their well-being, and how it has a huge impact on how they go about life, how it helps them to deal with challenges life brings. This turned out to be the most important element of the course design, and it made the biggest difference as far as their well-being is concerned. It took two hours every week for several weeks where, with my guidance, exploration of themes and exercises, students not only got to think about themselves and their future, but they also shared their thoughts with each other.

Many reported that, prior to our classes, they were convinced they were the only ones lost, confused and anxious about their future, but through sharing their stories with others, they discovered they were not alone, and the people who seemed to them to have it all “figured out”, in reality, did not. That changed the way they think about themselves. They felt less alone and isolated. They saw there was nothing wrong with them and that the majority of students were in the same boat. It allowed them to relax and be more open and vulnerable in front of each other. Now, they could be more kind and empathetic, not only toward others, but also toward themselves.

By spending time on self-reflection, they got to know themselves better. They were more clear about their goals. They understood the value of looking at the bigger picture of life, their values, and their natural inclinations. They saw how their mindset plays an important role in how they go about life and how they deal with circumstances. They learnt that they need not have it “all” figured out; they just need to know the “next step.” They discovered they have an ability to generate many ideas and plans. This made them more confident and less anxious about their future and better prepared for those times when things might go wrong. While each one of them benefited from our time together in their own unique way, all expressed their wish that this kind of education was part of their curriculum, because they saw how valuable it was for them to have this time before they graduate, before they make important choices, before they enter the adult life. One student pointed out how it would prevent a lot of mid-life crises from occurring further down the line.

Best of all and worst of all was that I got to teach this course and spend this time with them because of them. Two students to be exact came across my Huffington Post article “Why young adults don’t know what to do with their lives” and discussed this subject with me as a part of their research. In cooperation with their course coordinator, they organised the course. They gathered the students. They organised the room where, for seven weeks, they finally got to think about themselves, their lives, and gain the knowledge that will serve them as “guidelines” for the rest of their lives. I say worst because the initiative should have come from the “top.” But it did not, and when students of one of the most prestigious institutions in the world requested a meeting with the dean of their school to share what they learnt, to talk about the course, he did not even agree to see them. It came as a shock to me, and it took me a while to understand why he wouldn’t even see them, why wouldn’t he be curious to find out about something that made a difference to them before politely rejecting their offer via an email.

One day, I realised it is the very “business as usual”, the clinging on to the “agendas”, the status quo that were the reasons. Students, in this institution were expected and well-prepared to follow certain paths. But during our time together, many were relieved to discover they had a choice, that they did not to have follow what was expected of them. They were ambitious; they wanted great jobs, but when I say great jobs, I don’t mean only well-paid prestigious jobs, but fulfilling jobs, and they were inclined to choose the latter, but they also saw how they could have both. One really doesn’t have to exclude the other. But, as William Deresiewicz points out, prestigious universities:

Do nothing to discourage students from pursuing lucrative careers, no matter how personally unfulfilling or socially destructive. Of course, they run a system that’s designed to funnel students in exactly that direction (...) selling students to the highest bidder: it doesn’t get more cynical than that. But though the process isn’t that direct, that’s basically the way the system works.

My experience (in this institution) sadly has proven that.

I did not need to create my own course because I needed to be convinced it can be a game changer for solving the mental health problems among students today and a way to prevent them! When one is willing to do the research, there is more than enough relevant material and evidence of that. I created it because I am passionate about education, the right type of education to be exact, one that educates “the head” and “the heart.” I am not suggesting it will solve all the problems or it’s a magic wand or the only way out. But continuing to address mental health problems the way it has been done for a long time won’t bring the change that is so desperately needed now. Clinging to the status quo, protecting harmful agendas, lack of genuine interest and commitment to helping these young people, being driven by self-interest, unwillingness to explore other avenues, dismissing them out of hand are only some culprits and reasons the mental health epidemic hasn’t been diminishing but continues to be a growing problem. It really takes an institution, such as college and a university, with a person in charge who will acknowledge what doesn’t work and who is open to exploring what does and then is willing to try something new. It takes a person who truly cares about students and who is ready to make their well-being one of the top priorities on their college/university agendas. A person who’s not afraid to positively disrupt. This person will become a pioneer, who will run a college and university that students will seek out while others will remain doing the “business as usual” in the back.

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Deresiewicz, William (2015) “Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life”

Damon, William (2008) “The Path to Purpose: Finding Our Children Find Their Purpose in Life”

Galinsky, Lara and Nuxoll, Kelly (2011) “Work on Purpose”

Seldon, Anthony (2015) “Sir Anthony Seldon: 10 Steps to Address the Student Mental Health Crisis”, Times Higher Education

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