Our Struggling, Device-Addicted College Kids

They're using mental health services in unprecedented numbers

by Dorene Weinstein | Updated 03 Mar 2016 at 7:28 AM

More students today are coping with overwhelming stress and anxiety than students in years past. Teens in general are seeking mental health interventions at rates five times higher than the actual number of students enrolling in college, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

To be sure, psychiatric disorders often manifest themselves in the late teens and early twenties. And when combined with the typical struggles that occur at this time in life, including academic, financial and relationship pressures, people are often pushed off-balance.

But none of these stressors are new, as many parents and grandparents can attest. There is simply something different about the current generation of college students — and mental health experts are divided on the reasons why many of them need or seek out counseling.

Our society has become more comfortable talking about mental health issues in general, said Kelley Kitely, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago. “Psychotherapy isn’t looked at as pathological, but more as a way to grow.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin, medical director of The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, Maryland, is in that camp as well. With more exposure to mental health care than other generations, particularly for ADHD, this generation feels there is less of a stigma in seeking help.

"Young adults are getting treatment now, when they used to suffer in silence," Franklin told LifeZette.

But Tom Kersting, a psychotherapist and high school counselor in Ridgewood, New Jersey, has a different take. Today’s kids have very little resilience, Kersting told LifeZette — and are unable to handle even the most trivial of adversities.

"This generation of teenagers and young adults are the trophy kids. They have been protected and insulated from failure and have had little opportunity to overcome the everyday bumps in the road of life."

They have no emotional intelligence, said Kersting. "Many are lacking the ability to navigate and overcome their own emotional dilemmas and cannot empathize with the emotions of others."

He attributes the shortcomings to too little face-to-face communication and too much texting and posting. The brains of these kids haven't developed a connection between the executive functioning lobe and the emotional part, he says.

"The brain grows new neuropathways in order to adjust to its new environment. It will prune away neurotransmitters that are no longer used; this is known as neuro-pruning. Because the average teen or young adult spends nine hours per day with electronic devices, the brain adapts to this world and does not develop in the 'real' world," Kersting said.

Regardless of why more students are seeking help, "the purpose of college is all about success," said Mike Veny, a mental health speaker and blogger in New York City. "So discovering that you are struggling with a mental health issue in college can be devastating."

Treatment options vary from college to college, of course. While some institutions have large, well-staffed counseling or student services departments, others do not. Wait times for appointments can be long. Small colleges in small towns may not have full-time psychiatric supervision or the ability to handle complicated conditions, and are without extensive resources in the surrounding town.

This is why it’s key for students, when choosing a college and considering a host of issues in that selection process, to choose a school that suits their needs both scholastically and psychologically, advised Franklin of The Retreat. Before a student heads off to school, be proactive about setting up contacts and available clinicians, said Steven Schlozman, staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"Talk to your student about what to expect in the new environment, new classes, new friends, new roommate and new routines," said Franklin. Be non-judgmental and accepting of their fears, he added.

"Let your child know that in the college environment, there will be successes and failures. Learning from those mistakes is how to build resiliency."

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