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.