While teaching freshman composition at UTA last semester, I got to teach on a subject that is near and dear to my heart: college students and mental health.* The subject is near and dear to me, of course, because I struggled with my mental health as an undergraduate college student. It is also still near (but maybe not dear) to me because, at this phase of life I’m in–graduate student/mother/wife/teacher–I am again battling some anxiety.
At a public university, I couldn’t talk openly about what has most helped me since my own depressed undergraduate years. That is, prayer and meditating on Bible promises to replace negative thoughts. But I did tell my students I had struggled mightily in the area of mental health, and that I had gained some victories by learning to better express myself in a variety of contexts: talking honestly with friends, arguing “nicely” with my husband (as in Rogerian argument), and practicing expressive (personal) writing in private as well as in public settings, to name a few.
“Communicating well is an essential life skill,” I told my students from the beginning. As the course progressed, I increasingly talked about good communication as an aid for better mental health. In the middle of the semester we practiced some small group communication on several “mental health Mondays.” Following, we read a chilling ESPN article by Kate Fagan, entitled “Split Image,” about a college freshman who struggled to communicate a true picture of herself and ended up committing suicide. The article begins, “On Instagram, Madison Holleran’s life looked ideal: star athlete, bright student, beloved friend. But the photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.” We read the long article out loud with our desks in a circle, and I posed the questions Why did she do it? and What is the “argument” of the article? One astute and un-shy student said, “People who look great on the outside aren’t necessarily feeling good on the inside. They can be living a double life.” True, that.
My class of 24 was the quietest class I’ve ever taught. Very few of my students ever spoke voluntarily in class, even to one another. But when we took an anonymous mental health survey at mid-semester, my students learned some troubling things about their classmates. One-third said they were struggling with mental health to the point that it was interfering with their normal activities. (This statistic supports national research we read in the class.) One student was clearly suicidal, based on his or her anonymous comments. Forty percent reported they were in college not because they wanted to be, but because their parents wanted them to be.
Around the time I gave that survey, a handful of students stopped showing up. A couple did not turn in their second required essay. Though all my students started strong, four of them eventually failed or took incompletes. Except for a couple students whom I couldn’t reach, the strugglers eventually admitted to me–via emails, essays, or in person–that they were struggling with depression, anxiety, or relationships (romantic or parental), or all of the above. None of the failing students was academically incapable of succeeding in the class.**
I find often in life at large–not just in college life–that our failures are due to struggles of the mind (stinking thinking some call it), and/or the inability to ask for help. The longer I observe humanity, the more convinced I become that it’s simply hard for people in general to communicate honestly about their feelings. It’s hard for people to ask for help. Sometimes it is hard for us to even recognize or admit that we need help. This is a sad reality.
Another sad reality is a persistent belief, common among the older generations, that mental health struggles are myths. I was saddened when I read statements in my students’ final essays like “My dad doesn’t believe in depression; he just thinks people who claim it are weak.” I was also saddened to learn how reluctant my students were to simply talk openly with their parents. Some students admitted to me that they literally didn’t feel safe expressing their needs to their parents. One student wrote in her final reflection that she had changed her major from the one her parents selected (a major she hated), but she was keeping the news from them as long as possible out of fear of their reaction. Another admitted that her parents had threatened to disown her if she did not go to college.
Wow. My quiet class of twenty-four, though they didn’t speak up much in class, spoke loudly and clearly by the end of the semester: they have lots of legitimate (and normal) struggles, but they were generally uncomfortable sharing those struggles with others. They lacked skills in healthy self-expression that I believe could do much to prevent normal struggles from turning into mental health issues.
This is why I feel teaching college writing is not just a career, but also a calling. As I’ve transitioned back into professor-mode over the last year and a half, I’ve had many “aha” moments of why God has put my feet on this path. Namely, my life story has been one of figuring out how to communicate in order to achieve or maintain stable mental health. Now I can use what I’ve learned, and what I am still learning, to help young adults learn critical skills of communicating at a critical, crisis-inducing time.
Yes, communication–in a relational, expressive sense–is an essential life skill. These basics of communication are even more essential than academic writing, I believe–yet how much time do parents, teachers, and church leaders take to teach these “basic” skills? When we can’t express our feelings and/or ask people for help–healthy stress responses, by the way–we resort to unhealthy stress responses: fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
Over the last year and a half, I have seen that young people today need caring adults who won’t dismiss their struggles, but who will listen without judgment. Are you one of those adults?
If you are reading this blog post and have college-age kids in your life, or any age kids, for that matter, I hope you will ask yourself: Am I a safe place for these young people? Do I respond to their struggles and concerns in such a way that I invite them to share with me? Or do I react in ways that would lead them to want to hide from me, and not communicate honestly?
And some questions for self-assessment:
Do I know how to communicate my own needs to the people around me? When I am stressed, do I engage in healthy responses such as journaling, praying, or talking to trusted friends? Do I do the best I can with the resources around me to manage my mental health?
Aside about Managing My Own Mental Health
One of the resources I used to manage my anxiety last semester is CAPS, the free counseling and psychological services UTA offers its students. I first visited Ransom Hall (pictured above) in July of last year, when I was home for the summer and felt the familiar anxiety coming back. We were smack-dab in the midst of transitioning my mother-in-law and her possessions into our household, and me transitioning my possessions and my full-time professor position from my office at SWAU to my garage and my new office and roles at UTA. I called off a visit to see my parents in Minnesota in July because the thought of the trip, on top of everything else, was making my anxiety worse.
When I started my semester at UTA in late August, the anxiety improved for awhile–I do better at work than at home–but as the semester wore on, life crowded in on me, like it did to my students, and I felt myself struggling to breathe. I couldn’t find much time to journal or talk to friends, much less my husband (though I did pray on a lot on my commute). I was physically sick for about half the semester, so I couldn’t exercise much. However, I made use of the resources available. Ransom Hall is right next to my office in Carlisle Hall, so at mid-semester, I sought counseling (controlled crying and venting?) again. At the end of the semester, faced with another long break at home (I felt the anxiety coming), I sought again anxiety medication at the campus clinic.
Before Christmas, I made a playlist of anti-anxiety songs and played it over and over for a couple weeks. I saw a couple friends, but not as much as I would have liked (they’re mostly all busy moms, too). After a year and a half of crazy transitions and not seeing my family, I desperately wanted to escape to Minnesota, but failed to communicate to my family how important such a break was soon enough, and never made that trip. We did fly my little brother here for a visit, though, and his presence has been a comfort. And last week my dad happened to call me while I was having a panic attack, and, hearing my sobbing and hyperventilating over the phone (a quite unusual call for us), he planned a last-minute trip to Texas during the last few days of my break. I wish I could have communicated better, earlier, and less dramatically my needs to my family, but so be it. There is a lesson in this. I am still learning to communicate my needs to the close people around me in order to take care of my mental health. I am still a work in progress. But I have learned a lot, and I have a lot to share. Sharing uncomfortably personal things seems to be the ministry God has given me, in fact, and I embrace it gladly, happy that sharing my hurt can lead to someone else’s hope.
End of Confession
You don’t need a college education to improve in these areas (communication, mental health management, being supportive of others in their struggles). You just need a willingness to be honest with yourself and others, and a willingness to listen. If you feel like you need help in some basics of communication, you might benefit from a radio interview I had the privilege of doing this past October with Adventist Radio London on “Overcoming Depression.” Praise God that depression is no longer a part of my story!
Again, Happy New Year, friends! I’ll sign off this post the way I signed off my class last semester: good communication and good mental health to you!
*Providentially, this “topic cluster” was added to the First Year Writing folder just this year–just for me, it seems.
**All the trends I’ve noted in this paragraph also applied to a 25-person Research Writing class I taught last year at Southwestern Adventist University, a private Christian school. An interesting comparison.