The recent arrest of parents and coaches for gaming their kids’ path into some of America’s most elite colleges casts an interesting angle into the contemporary mental health of our teens and young adults and, perhaps, some emergent challenges to the norms of contemporary parenting.
I had the opportunity last week to present Mental Health 101 to the Long Island chapter of the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling (NYSACAC). “MH101” is a one-hour construct of the Mental Health Association of New York State and serves to whet the appetite of attendees so that they will connect to the work of the Mental Health for Schools Resource Center as well as MHAs in general. The focus of the session was how colleges can engage prospective and incoming students with mental health resources.
NYSACAC members shared anecdotes about highly protective parents of applicants who all-too-frequently take the preponderance of responsibility for their child’s application, including serving as the point person for phone calls and emails regarding the status of their child’s applications. Several noted questions about the authenticity of the authorship of the student’s essays and also shared their classroom colleagues’ complaints about the invasiveness of parents within academic processes.
A recent TIME article about the state of mental health on college campuses reported a 30 percent increase between 2009 and 2015 in students seeking counseling services at colleges and universities. TIME further reported that, in 2017, “nearly 40 percent of college students said that they had felt so depressed in the past 12 months that it was difficult for them to function.” Furthermore, 61 percent reported that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. Suicide and self-harm also are reported to be on the rise. The Mental Health First Aid initiative advanced by the National Council for Behavioral Health, which MHAW offers with the help of a SAMHSA grant, now offers an enhanced module specifically for people, including students, who engage with students in higher education venues.
On the positive side, students’ use of services and willingness to be open about their experiences with stress are signs of progress against mental health stigma. And it is positive that, according to TIME, colleges are stepping up staffing and other mental health responses to the needs of students. However, we also must consider the connection between the rise of these problems and the preparedness of students who take on the challenges and opportunities of college study, once considered a privilege and now considered generally as a necessity for future vocational success. And, here, parental roles – and their own fears about their kids’ plight – have to be examined.
How much parental protectiveness is okay, particularly as children become teens then young adults? Is there, perhaps, criteria to be discussed for “overprotective disorder”— such as when a parent feels so much concern about their child’s plight that they the need to assume functional responsibilities for them, up to and including providing protected paths (including bribery and legal threats) to desired goals? And, in some cases, those goals aren’t always those expressed by the child but more reflect the goals of the parent.
The “nature vs. nurture” debate often arises in conversations, whether clinical or casual, concerning kids. With the opioid crisis and debates about legalizing marijuana, our attention is often on brain development and chemistry, particularly for teens and young adults. Perhaps the travails of those parents whose sense of entitlement has become criminal can serve to swing needed attention to the experiences, pressures, and dynamics of our families.