The report card is not good. I am not talking about the academic achievements, such as they are, of America’s college students. I am talking about their mental health, what the researchers gingerly call their resilience.
Over the past five years college students have increasingly been availing themselves of the services of mental health counselors. Emergency calls have doubled and students seek help for increasingly minor matters. Peter Gray explains the situation in Psychology Today:
A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services at a major university to join faculty and administrators for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.
One is not surprised that these same students do not know how to deal with poor grades:
Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively.
For those who work in the field the change is palpable. Moreover, the change is redefining the role of the university:
Colleges and universities have traditionally been centers for higher academic education, where the expectation is that the students are adults, capable of taking care of their own everyday life problems. Increasingly, students and their parents are asking the personnel at such institutions to be substitute parents. There is also the ever-present threat and reality of lawsuits. When a suicide occurs, or a serious mental breakdown occurs, the institution is often held responsible.
In offering his diagnosis, Gray blames helicopter parents, parents who refuse to give children the chance to deal with any issue on their own:
I have described the dramatic decline, over the past few decades, in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adults. Among the consequences, I have argued, are well-documented increases in anxiety and depression, and decreases in the sense of control of their own lives. We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention. So now, here’s what we have: Young people,18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it.
He adds that parents themselves are suffering the influence of the larger culture:
Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in society—victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”
So Gray suggests that parents should start giving children the opportunity to learn how to take moral responsibility. I would certainly concur that children are not brought up to be moral beings; they are being brought up to define themselves by their desires.
This is well and good, but only up to a point. One understands that helicopter parents exist, but we should also ask how many children are brought up in broken homes. How many of them belong to blended families where roles and relationships are ambiguous and confused?
At a time when more and more women work outside of the home, one is skeptical that children suffer from too much parental presence and pressure. It is impossible for a parent to work outside of the home and also be intimately involved in the every aspect of a child’s life.
The notion that children are coddled beyond reason must be balanced against the fact that a significant number of children are brought up in unstructured homes, in blended families and in families where neither parent is at home after school.
Surely, the crisis that Gray describes is real. But it is symptomatic of the fact that we, as a nation, have undertaken a radical experiment in social reorganization and parenting. We have chosen to dispense with traditional family structures and we encourage everyone to seek self-fulfillment. We have made the quest for personal satisfaction more important than the need to fulfill one’s duties to others.
The resultant anomie has fallen on the most vulnerable, on children. One assumes that many psycho studies show that children are flourishing under the new regime. The evidence from college mental health services tells a very different story.
Among other problems, these children have no real security. They do not know where they belong. They feel unmoored and dislocated. When they go to college and meet other children who feel the same way seems to compound the problem. They start feeling that it’s the new norm.
The result is a form of mental anguish and depression, of being thin-skinned, of being overly sensitive to the least slight. All of the empty-headed empaths out there will respond by saying that they feel the students’ pain. These students do not need anyone to feel their pain. They do not even need another pill. They need guidance.
And they need rules of the road, especially when it comes to dating and mating. Apparently, these no longer exist. Students do not date; they do not learn how to develop relationships. They might engage in the random sexual encounters with students whose names they do not know or they might withdraw to the library and avoid it all.
If they hook up they are likely to get drunk or stoned before doing so. They might find themselves in a state where they did consent, but were so completely out of their minds that they do not know what they consented to.
After the fact, they feel shame over acts that they would never have done if they had been sober or compos mentis.
A dating scene where there are no rules or no norms is one where everyone feels equally lost. Some exploit the situation. Others are exploited. Often they do not know which side of the equation they are on.
A situation where there are no rules or norms produces, by definition, anomie… which means rulelessness or normlessness. As if that were not bad enough, young people today do not even know whether they are men or women. They all consider themselves to be persons. Confusion reigns.
Keep in mind, however wonderful today’s psychiatric medication is, students and everyone else are being told that it can cure whatever ails you. And yet, if all these thin-skinned college students are all on their meds, clearly the meds do not work as well as they are supposed to.
Moreover, the society’s love affair with neuroscience has persuaded people that it’s all a matter of biochemistry. This has led children to believe that if something does not feel right, or if they do not feel good about themselves, they need merely find a chemical substance that will make them feel better. Obviously, that substance need not be a prescription drug. It can be alcohol, which functions-- we have recently discovered-- like oxytocin, or marijuana or any one of a number of illicit drugs..
We no longer teach children how to deal with adversity or even how to deal with success. We teach them how to numb themselves to life by ingesting or imbibing a chemical substance.
And let’s not get started on the damage done by the self-esteem movement. If everyone gets a trophy, if children go to school to be fed a constant diet of unearned praise, it makes good sense to say that they do not know how to fail. They have never been allowed to fail. The educators and psychologists who have promoted self-esteem bear a significant responsibility for the problems these college students face. We should start sending them the bills.
One hesitates to say it, but when children fail parents feel that they have failed. When parents insist that their children have not really failed they are trying to assuage their guilt for not being the best parents they can be.
We should also mention the winner-take-all economy we live in. Students are under the impression that if they do not make their way to the Promised Land of Silicon Valley or Wall Street they will be consigned to misery and deprivation. In the past certain professions offered good career paths. Students could become doctors or lawyers; they could work in academia. They could even become journalists. No longer. The legal profession has nearly been shut down to advancement. If you did not do very well at a top tier law school, you are going to have a hard time have a good career as a lawyer. The medical profession has been thrown into chaos and is increasingly controlled by government and insurance. It has become increasingly unattractive to young people. Those who join the profession today are-- older physicians will tell you-- less competent and less intelligent than their predecessors. And of course, in the academy just about the best a young person can do is to become an adjunct somewhere, outside of the tenure track, without benefits or job security. About the fate of the journalism, no one is very optimistic.
And then there is the constant assault on national pride. As I argued in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, mental health and well-being is not merely a function of individuals. It is a function of group pride and group confidence.
If you live in a great and successful country, you will feel pride in its accomplishments and pride in your own contributions, potential or actual, to those accomplishments. If, however, you live in a culture like today’s America, where national pride is constantly being trashed in the media and the school system, where flying the American flag is controversial, where children are taught that the nation is an organized criminal conspiracy, where the president feels embarrassed about the nation’s power and is apologizing for its actions… your morale will be systematically undermined.
How good can you feel about yourself for having been born into such a horror show? People who are constantly bad-mouthing the nation are producing depression.
From the evidence presented by student health services, today’s young Americans are crying out in pain… not for fewer helicopter parents but for a coherent social structure, a sense of where they belong, a sense of what it means to be a morally responsible adult, a feeling that they belong to a great nation. They want to know what their roles are and they want someone who will judge them fairly and honestly.
America’s great experiment in social anomie has failed. And those who have suffered and are suffering the most are its children.