Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Gift of Crisis

As I have mentioned in a previous post, the college years can be a volatile time for students.  Late adolescents and young adults are caught in between two worlds - that of their youth, their homes and families, and that of their future, their developing selves and careers.  This time is marked by both great excitement and great anxiety, which is a recipe for emotional turmoil and crisis.  The excitement derives from a sense of increased freedom of choice and independence, as well as the invigorating challenges and risks this brings.  To students, the world can seem like a grand buffet and they are made dizzy with all the delicious offerings.  They set about sampling the world to see what it is like, what appeals to them, what fits them and what doesn't.  This sampling often frightens others, notably parents, but it needn't.  Most students figure out on their own what works well and what does not, because the world will let them know.  If one gorges on the buffet pain will be felt.

But there is also anxiety.  Increased freedom is often noticed by the student very early on, and there is much joy and revelry attending this realization.  Soon thereafter, and sometimes very soon, a sense of responsibility emerges which can be quite shocking and as heavy as a coat of lead.  It becomes clearer, because life itself will reveal it, that students ultimately cannot avoid being responsible for themselves, for their identities and choices, for the well-being of their friends and communities.  For some this journey is slow and painstaking; for others it is as quick and awesome as lightning.

It is in this cauldron that emotional or psychological crises occur.  At times the friction between these two forces becomes more than the student can bear, much as what occurs when two tectonic plates collide.  Something has to give.  The crisis is the equivalent of an earthquake, the means by which equilibrium is achieved and a new topography is born.  For many who interact with students there can be a very strong urge to dampen down the crisis, to soothe the eruption of emotion, to medicate away the discomforts, to relieve them of the responsibility to self and others.  While some students may need such interventions, because of the degree of their impairment, many, if not most, do not.  In short, the crisis needs to occur and if we prevent or distort it we are doing students and their future authentic selves a great disservice.  Growth does not occur without some pains, and sometimes the pains are quite intense and dramatic.

And so we find ourselves in a predicament of our own.  Using wisdom, good judgment and the best advice, we have to choose when and how to support the student.  We have to balance the need to soothe against the student's need to develop into a mature being.  This is admittedly not always an easy task.  Tragedies which have occurred across the nation have resulted in an attitude or climate of fear for some, and this can produce defensive responding when great patience and faith are needed instead.  Unfortunately the litigious among us, lawyers, and the court itself, can unwittingly reinforce this harmful posture through the apparent expectation of clairvoyance.  Growth occurs in the process of getting through the pain, not by going around it.

Many faith traditions include a prayer or edict about being thankful for suffering.  It is easy for mental health professionals to see why this is so.  This suffering is a gift, a way that our bodies and psyches tell us that change is needed.  All we need to do is listen to this inner voice, be patient and accepting in our comprehension, and respond.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Relationship Myths and the College Student

Sometimes college students struggle with beliefs they have formed about how, when and with whom they should form a romantic relationship. Many students feel the need or urge to act on impressions they have formed from popular media and friends about relationships, and many times this leads to frustration and disappointment. So, we all may need a relationship reality check from time-to-time.

Here is a list of some common myths:

  • There is one and only one right person in the world for you to commit to or marry
  • Until a person finds the perfect person to commit to, he or she should not be satisfied
  • You should feel totally competent as a future spouse or partner before you decide to marry or commit
  • Fighting or arguing means the relationship won't work
  • You can be happy with anyone you choose to commit to if you try hard enough
  • You won't be desirable to men or women unless you have sex with them
  • You should choose someone to commit to whose personal characteristics are opposite from or similar to your own
  • Being in love with someone is sufficient reason to commit to that person
  • Your partner should just understand you without you having to communicate to him or her
  • Choosing someone to commit to is a “decision of the heart”
  • Living together will prepare you for marriage and improve your chances of being happily married
  • Choosing a mate should be easy
  • There is nothing more you can do to find a mate
  • Preparing for commitment or marriage “just comes naturally”
  • We know practically nothing about what predicts a happy partnership or marriage, so just take your chances

Actually, experience and research indicate otherwise.  I have worked with many students whose path of misery began with one or more of these beliefs, often not entirely within their consciousness.  If you are laboring under these or other myths and would like assistance, call your campus counseling service.  Working through relationship issues is a big part of college life, and college mental health professionals are quite adept at quickly assisting students with such concerns.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Matter of Substance

My mother likes to say "Patience is a virtue".  And I am here to tell you, she is right.  Western culture, and American culture in particular, is so fast-paced and focused on production that many have lost the ability to slow down, take perspective, mull over things, or just plain sit and ponder and wait.  I am reminded of the refrain in an old Queen tune: "I want it all and I want it now".  This seems to have become a de facto motto for many, especially young folks who have never been known throughout the millenia for their patience.

Why is this important to the mental health of students?  Because many college student problems are self-correcting.  The human body is an amazing organism capable of healing itself in many ways, if we just give it a fighting chance.  In my work I have noticed this to be true not only of our physical vehicle but also of our emotions, of the psyche itself.  Time does in fact heal, if we let it.  This means time and nurturing and avoiding various toxins, whether they be person, place or thing.  And that means patience.  Beyond this all that many students need is a healing relationship, someone who can listen accurately and gently push in a needed direction. This takes a good deal of training and wisdom to do well.

Unfortunately, too many turn to things, or substances, in their search for an answer to their discomfort.  And too often the substance has no, well, substance.  Be they food, alcohol, street drugs, or medications, the benefits of such substances are often temporary and fleeting, or even illusory altogether (as in the well-documented placebo effect).  It takes a great deal of wisdom to sort out when and how to use a medication, for example, to facilitate change which supports feeling better for the long term.

There are a range of counseling and medication services available on most college campuses and in surrounding communities. Because students sometimes delay seeking help until they are experiencing greater discomfort, there can be a tendency to search for the "quick fix" for their concerns, often in the form of a pill or some other substance as noted above.

Students may have felt sad, tired, or anxious for quite some time, and it is understandable if they want to feel better right away, especially given the pressure they feel to perform academically and socially. It may seem that everything would be better if they just found the right medication or drug to ease their minds. Sometimes, medication is in fact an important and useful form of support when physiological functioning is impaired. Other times, the best form of help may be counseling, a combination of counseling and medication, or some other resource or service. Research has shown that superior results are often achieved in just these other ways for a variety of concerns. One thing we do know: turning to alcohol or drugs to feel better often makes things dramatically worse.  I hope you can hear the voices of the maimed and deceased as I speak this truth.

It has been my experience that many students face significant but essentially transient relationship conflicts and adjustment issues while in college. Sometimes these situations are quite intense, involving a significant degree of distraction, stress, depression, or anxiety. Sometimes these states appear to others as an "illness", say ADHD, panic disorder, or bipolar disorder.  Students, and even their parents, are sometimes tempted to look to substances to help them feel better during such a time. Often, maybe even most of the time, the issues are rooted in the roiling cauldron of late adolescent separation and individuation of self which can be complex and difficult for many.  Better answers may, however, involve reducing stress, being more assertive with roommates and others, minimizing stress and conflict, developing better study skills and habits, and so on.  It takes a skilled listener to hear the echo of person-hood and help a student become who they are.  Such changes can take a little time, but not forever. When changes like these are made, they tend to stick. Too often a student may take a medication but undertake no other development and, when this occurs, there is a very good possibility that problems will return when the medication is discontinued, as it most always is, and sometimes even before that.

So, students need to be patient when they are feeling very impatient, hard as that is.  Talking, listening, watching and waiting are all a part of healing.  They should look for someone who can listen and reflect with them while they wait and absorb and percolate.  Lasting and satisfying change will find them then.