Thursday, May 25, 2017

Success or "Gradual Disintegration"?

Mental health issues may arise from a great many sources. An important source is the situation in which we find ourselves, or our total context, in particular as it interacts with a current developmental stage of life.

We often find ourselves in novel circumstances, something we have never faced before, especially when we are challenged or stressed. Major life transitions are certainly like this, like our first serious relationships, marriage, employment, having children, the loss of loved ones. And college! College is itself an extended period of incubation and growth, full of excitement and many challenges. Depending on our developmental history we are all in different stages of readiness for this enterprise.

Ideally we will be prepared, at least in some rudimentary fashion, through having had experiences which approximate the transition. Families can certainly provide for these and many do. It is also true that many do not. It is further true that, sometimes, there may be nothing that can prepare us for the stresses we face, whether in college or elsewhere. That's just the way life can be at times.

So imagine that you find yourself in an overwhelmingly stressful transition. You may learn to adapt, gaining the skills you need to adjust and succeed. You may do this through trial-and-error learning, or you may deliberately catch it early and seek more efficient forms of learning, maybe by visiting your campus counseling center or obtaining other forms of assistance. I vote for counseling!

Or worse, you may founder. There is some evidence at the both the undergraduate and graduate levels that many students experience a gradual disintegration in functioning and subsequently take a break or withdraw altogether. For some this disintegration may be due to an underlying mental illness which had not fully emerged prior to the stress. For others the symptoms are a reflection of lack of preparedness which can be remedied by focused short term interventions in therapy and other support. Data which indicate rapid equilibrium and restoration in functioning after, say, five or so therapy sessions, supports the latter conclusion. This pattern can be seen on a regular basis in campus counseling services but one rarely hears about it.

The difference between the two patterns is critical, of course. This is one reason that accessing campus counseling services is so crucial, especially in the early stages of a stressful transition. Such services can determine what type of interventions are best suited for the emerging difficulties, limit negative outcomes, and increase the probability of continued success.