This is a sponsored post. I was compensated by Med-IQ through an educational grant from Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. and Lundbeck to write about depression in college-aged students.
All opinions are my own
“I’m exhausted, Mom. I can’t do it all. And all I keep hearing from my teachers is that I’m not committed enough. If I could just work harder, I know I could commit more,” my son cried.
My teenaged son was hunched over at his desk in his bedroom and his hazel eyes looked at me in pain. He was an emotional mess because he felt like he couldn’t commit to everything going on in his life.
I looked at the digital clock on his nightstand: it was 11:37 pm on a school night.
After burning the candle at both ends during his sophomore year of high school, my son broke down and gave into the exhaustion that had been plaguing him for months.
I pulled my son away from the project he was scrambling to finish last minute and folded him into a hug. As we sat on his bed, him with tears rolling down his face, I buried my face into his curly brown hair. The guilt was profound: how had I let him spin so far off course?
I wish I could say that I was surprised that it all came to a head on that emotional night in his bedroom but, sadly, though I saw the warning signs early on, I tried to ignore them at first. But the statistics are staggering:
1 in 5 youth and young adults experiences a mental health condition.
75% of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 24.
30% of college students reported feeling so down at some point during the previous year that they found it difficult to function.
The stigma of having a kid who was “falling apart” kept me from seeing the situation as it truly was: a mental health emergency.
My usually amiable son was irritable when he’d arrive home from school. A simple “How was your day?” was met with a grump and a curt answer about having too much homework. He was juggling a long school day, several honors and AP classes and a part in his school play.
I started to notice that he was restless and he couldn’t seem to settle down during his downtime. Not that there was much downtime, though: his rehearsal schedule was demanding and his rigorous curriculum didn’t leave more than an hour at most for him to eat dinner, watch Netflix or goof off with his friends.
Then the late nights started, with him staying up well past 11p on school nights to try to catch up on homework or to cram for a test that he’d known about for weeks.
Friction rubbed between us as I grew frustrated by his seeming lack of organization.
He was in constant motion, like a whirlwind of irritability and annoyance constantly running late and smelling of unwashed hoodies.
But he kept going, like an out of control freight train, because no one was there to put the brakes on for him.
The adults in his life had forced him to keep pushing towards an ideal that no one could attain.
The adults in his life were undermining his exhaustion by saying things like, “If you aren’t 110% committed, you shouldn’t be here.”
The adults in his life were chiding him about studying more, getting higher grades and achieving at any cost.
And one of those adults was me.
Though we’ve always chosen the activities our kids participate in carefully, my husband and I realized that night that we’d made a huge mistake: we trusted our son to know his limits.
We trusted that our son would tell us he was struggling before life got to be too much.
We trusted that he’d know how to protect his mental health.
But he’s 16.
He hasn’t fully learned how to set limits. And, though he did finally break and ask us for help, when I looked at his tear-stained face, I realized we should have dealt with his stress and anxiety months ago.
Because the fact is, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students. In fact, the suicide rate for college students falls in between 6.5 and 7.5 per 100,000.
Let that sink in: that means that on a college campus with 100,000 kids, 7 or 8 students will die by suicide due to risk factors like the loss of a previous support system and social network, academic stress, increased pressure to succeed or feelings of isolation.
A history of mental illness, substance abuse and/or a previous history of trauma coupled with a lack of coping skills or interpersonal difficulties makes a teen even more susceptible to suicide.
And suicide rates in teens have tripled since the 1950s. Tripled.
It was a crushing blow to realize we were watching our son flounder and we didn’t intercede.
By simply assuming that our son would know his limits, we were blinded to how serious the situation could become.
Until the day he looked us with tears in his eyes, we hadn’t helped him learn how to set limits for his activities and to say no when his schedule has become overwhelming.
Rather, we’ve inadvertently continued to perpetuate the notion that success in life means sticking with your obligations no matter what the price is to your mental health.
We’ve inadvertently pushed him to stay in Honors or AP classes because it looks good to colleges, despite the fact that he was breaking under the workload.
As my husband and I talked through our son’s stress and anxiety with managing a difficult workload, we realized we didn’t know how to proceed.
What should parents do when they see their kids struggling with their mental health?
Dr. John F. Greden, Founder and Executive Director, University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center and Dr. Todd D. Sevig, Director, Counseling and Psychological Services, University of Michigan, advise that parents check in with their own level of stigma and their own history with mental health.
Greden and Sevig both suggest that parents gain education about the realities of college life today and how mental health affects all students to some degree.
And they stress that teens are learning who they are and who they want to be, and part of that is learning how to take care of their own health.
Since that day in my son’s bedroom, I have advocated with my son’s school administrators to regulate the time our students spend in extracurricular activities.
I’ve researched tools that can help parents and teens screen for depression and mental illness. And I’ve encouraged my friends to help their teens learn how to use these tools, too. Online tools will help students learn how to track their own stressors and know when to get help.
We’ve helped our son adjust his school schedule to allow for more elective classes and to free up some downtime in his day.
We’ve helped him manage his time and go to bed earlier, sometimes even declaring “everyone stays home” nights so that we can regroup as a family.
I’ve looked at parents in the eye and reminded them that when a kid is telling you he’s exhausted, saying, “Well, there are other kids who are more than willing to take your spot so maybe you should quit,” isn’t the least bit helpful.
Watching my son deal with the stress that comes from being led to believe that fully committing to an activity or sport means giving up your emotional well-being has been sobering.
My husband and I are redefining what the mental health discussion looks like in our home even if that means harsh criticism from parents when I advocate for my kids.
Even if it means having to hear other parents call me weak.
But I, for one, and 110% committed to making sure my teens know their mental health and emotional well-being should always come first.
(If you have a teen who is transitioning from high school to college, this link from Set2Go has useful information for both parents and teens.)
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Diane Rothburd says
My 14 year old son did not even make it through open house for high school. The signs were all there in 8th grade. Calling me from school because his “stomach hurt” or his “head aches”. Refusing to get out of the car at school drop off for some reason or another. During open house, my son had a full on anxiety attack and we escaped through a side door at the gym. We talked to him and thought he was feeling better but never made it through the front doors of the high school after walking to school with a friend. He made an excuse of a stomach ache and turned around away from high school. I found him in a nearby neighborhood after he called me upset. So far, he has missed 2 days of school. We got an emergency visit to a recommended psychiatrist. He diagnosed my son with anxiety disorder and my son begins medication today.
Our local high school is large. Double the size of the average. I need advice…would you look for a smaller safer more supportive school environment. Our assigned high school is overcrowded and not a ton of support staff .
What would you do? Psychiatrist didn’t give much advice on it but did want us to get Max a therapist which we are in process of finding.
Should I find a smaller school setting?
Sam Adams says
My name is Samuel, I am a student of AP and High Education classes as well and have had similar problems, I gave myself a serious stomach issue from all the stress. As a religious person I would say turn to god, or whatever you believed in, as a Christian I truly believe god is helping me through this, there are youth groups at churches and at schools you can try if this is the way you want to go. Or have him get involved with some extra-curricular activities. Nothing he doesn’t want to do, Do not force him, but let him find his crowd and just relax a little more. Max is my brother’s name, he has also had some serious trauma with the public school system, the schools treat humans like numbers, a statistic, but Church Groups and extra-curriculars help students to find their identity, know who they are, and it helps a lot. My current intention is to make a difference for other people who struggle by becoming a politician who advocates for student’s rights, because our school has lost 3 students in the past year, to murder by other students and suicide. And it needs to change.
C. Quinn says
I would do anything your gut tells you to do in order to help your son. Leaving the school and friends he knows may be stressful, or it may be a relief. Ask him how he would feel, and consider what’s best for him in the short and long term. Good luck.
If you can find a smaller school setting that would be ideal, and ask him if he has any ideas to lessen the stress. If a smaller school is not possible, definitely contact the high school councilors and be a pest if you have to, to find a way to take your son on a tour of the high school after hours when less students are there. He can walk his class schedule on his own either with you or a school staff person that cares. This might help him feel less overwhelmed with everything being new. It’s now Sept. 3, I hope he and you feel less stressed by now. Warm regards to you both!