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Improving college students’ mental health

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Autumn


It’s a rare parent who doesn’t feel a twinge of anxiety when dropping off a child at college. Although parents may worry most about drinking and sexual assault, more subtle disturbances can also hinder college students, according to campus psychiatrist Marcia Morris, MD ’89. Recently, Morris has been seeing more students who feel extremely lonely or are obsessed with perfection.

Those are among the problems she addresses in The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students. Drawing on research and on 25 years as a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, Morris also discusses suicidal behavior, financial stress, eating disorders, struggles with sexual identity, and psychosis. “This is my way of trying to help parents prevent some of these problems, or to address things quickly,” says Morris, the associate program director for psychiatry at the University of Florida’s Student Health Care Center. Morris is also an associate professor at the university’s College of Medicine and the mother of two recent college graduates.

In The Campus Cure, Morris explains how to recognize trouble. For instance, she advises parents to look at their children’s grades each term; bad grades may signal problems that a student has managed to hide. For a family facing a crisis, Morris provides step-by-step guidance on how to proceed.

She confirms that unchecked drinking is commonplace in college. One recent study showed that a third of students had binged on alcohol during a two-week period. (Binging means four or more drinks in two hours for a woman and five or more for a man.) When parents warn their children against misusing drugs and alcohol, Morris advises them to focus on health, not morality. She notes that young people who observe that their parents moderate their drinking are likely to do the same.

Sexual predation is also widespread. By graduation day, one in 10 female students will have experienced forced penetration. Unwanted sexual contact affects one in four students who are transgender, queer, or nonconforming, and one in 20 men. Morris reminds parents not to blame a child who is victimized.

Although college social life may look appealing, Morris reports that many students feel lonely. One study found that one in four students had felt “very lonely” during the previous two weeks. Feeling isolated increases the likelihood of depression and suicide, whereas more robust social support correlates with higher grades. Morris points out that children who grew up on Snapchat and Instagram have missed some chances to practice face-to-face interaction.

She suggests that students seek friends by joining clubs, cultural groups, and religious organizations. A student might arrive early at class and then chat with a classmate, join a study group, or arrange to meet a potential friend for lunch. Group therapy can help young adults with social anxiety disorder, and Morris recommends The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook.

She has also noticed an increase in extreme perfectionism. Some people call it “duck syndrome”: appearing to excel effortlessly while madly paddling just below the water line. “Parents should tell their child that they might get a C or even an F in a class, and help them recognize that sometimes we do fail at things,” says Morris. External factors may contribute to an obsession with success, including the pressure to find a job with a salary sufficient to repay loans.

Although The Campus Cure addresses distressing problems, the book provides case studies and action checklists that can help parents and students weather difficulties. Morris sympathizes with parents of college students: “I want to make sure that when parents read the book, there’s no sense of guilt. Raising kids is very challenging, and there’s not one formula for it.”

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