Institutional factors exacerbate student distress (opinion)

The past few years have seen a well-documented rise in reported adolescent and college student distress, and college counseling centers are overwhelmed with the task of providing services. The $64 million question often asked is “What is wrong with these students?”

This question is an unfortunate invitation to blame and scapegoat our students. This simplistic thinking falls short of considering the contextual and systematic factors contributing to students’ distress. We look toward them as the problem rather than thinking about how our communities are working together (or not) to create the current challenges.

In what follows, we offer some thoughts about what institutional factors are contributing to students’ suffering. Our perspective is grounded in our experiences as directors of a college counseling center on the front lines of college student mental health and in the developmental model we use in our clinical work with students. The ongoing interaction between clinical work and theory has led us to elaborate a model of college student development that focuses on the importance of being able to be curious about differences, set limits and disappointments.

While others have noted that the transition to college offers a repetition of our earliest developmental tasks around separating and individuating, our developmental model argues that this time is more than just a replaying of earlier years but rather a chance to focus on the existential aspects of the processes of becoming. For example, college-age students, working to establish a vibrant identity, must contend with the idea that they cannot be everything or all the things that they or loved ones imagined. Like small children who must face the realization they will not have all their needs met all the time, how students come to mourn and accept this has important ramifications for their sense of beingness and the way they occupy space in the world in relationships to others.

Moreover, the context of this process is also different. Unlike the childhood years, when our students were entirely dependent upon their primary caretakers, as late adolescents and young adults, they are now more self-sufficient and agentic. Accordingly, our institutes of higher education are not considered in loco parentis, nor should they be. Our institutional communities, however, do have a responsibility to students. Just as parents play a crucial role in informing how their children navigate moving from being fully dependent to independent subjects, college administrators, faculty and staff members also play an important developmental role in shaping how our students encounter and nurture their evolving sense of self.

In this negotiation and articulation of that role, our college and university communities inadvertently have been participating in the creation of a system ripe for mental distress. Three factors, none of which reflect bad intention or malevolence on our parts as administrators, faculty and staff, come together to create something of a perfect storm: 1) a shift away from value-based education focused on critical thinking and “becoming” toward one promising “transformative experiences”; 2) ambivalence around recognizing the systematic and structural factors contributing to trauma, inequity and suffering, including the COVID-19 pandemic; and 3) anxiety about the use of authority, especially when it entails establishing boundaries that define limits of responsibility and establish ways to redress grievances and conflicts.

A Shift in Focus

Many colleges have shifted the proposition they offer students, moving away from a focus on a value-based education, especially one focused on the development of critical thinking and a seasoned acceptance of the highs and lows endemic to scholarship and personal growth, in favor of an unrealistic (and, thereby, too often glib) promise of an essential and only positive “transformative experience.”

A focus on providing a transformative experience rather than preparation for the challenges that academic and personal growth entails represent a failure to prepare students for the future. While we commonly hear (without the support of data) how students are “less resilient” than previous generations, our communities’ overwhelming emphasis on transformative experiences renders us less engaged in preparing students for both the soaring joys of achievement and the disappointments of failures. Too often we try to ignore the painful truth that although we all have potential, it is never unlimited. We falter in our appreciation of the paradox that helping students with their encounter and acceptance of limits—even as we support them to reach for the stars—is fundamentally critical to their being able to assume the maturity needed for solid scholarship and good citizenship. And yet, the inclination to promise falsely the realization of “your unlimited and special potential” is often thought of as necessary to compete in the postsecondary marketplace. It invites an unrealistic expectation among students that all their needs and desires will be met, that these will be “the best four years of your life.”

That some students seemingly transform without a stumble and smile all through the four years only makes students who do not wonder, “What is wrong with me?” A better question might be “What is wrong with what we as colleges are promising?”

Ambivalence Around Otherness and Inequality

To our credit, at our colleges and universities we have worked hard to diversify our campuses by enrolling students who for any number of reasons traditionally would not have attended college. In many cases, these students are supported with scholarships, summer programs and special on-campus groups designed to ease their transition and prepare them for the impending academic challenges. Despite this, we are wise to wonder if our efforts are enough, especially if our goal is to provide a transformative experience.

For example, international students often get a week of orientation prior to starting classes. This effort is often conceived thoughtfully but within a time-limited frame. Infrastructure is almost always lacking for addressing the needs and dilemmas of these students, many of which only emerge with the passage of time. International students often also face specific challenges that might not enter the consciousness of American fellow students. For example, some of these students must send money to support their families back home and lack money for their own basic needs.

What is our ethical responsibility to these students? On the one hand, we arguably have been generous in accepting and seeking to support their opportunity for a solid education. On the other hand, our support for students who do not conform to the traditional ideas and images of college students is often uneven. While we may not feel it is our responsibility to be so comprehensively attentive to these students, the promises we’ve made of a transformative education make our voices ring hollow if these students must scamper fretfully to secure even the basics that allow their continuance at the institution.

When idealistic and hopeful students feel thwarted or misled, they (as anyone would) react with sadness, dismay and anger. It then becomes our challenge as members of the institution to tolerate being the disappointing “bad” object (or player). How we react to the complexity of students’ feelings can be problematic. We can become upset along with the students that their needs were not met, or we can contest this conclusion. Along with either of these reactions, we also can feel resentful that our goodness and good intentions are not being seen and appreciated. A sense of not being enough can predominate throughout the institution, generating widespread depressive feelings, anxiety and resentment.

Of course, questions of what exactly is enough and who should determine that are of critical importance. Answers to these questions are almost always elusive, no matter how frequently we wrestle with them in our administrative meetings. However, in this effort it is important that we do not short-circuit our questioning with a self-soothing conclusion that “there must be something wrong with them” (the students). When we devolve to this simplistic conclusion, we have skipped over important anxiety that we would do better to acknowledge and own.

Anxiety About the Use of Authority

When students express their suffering, either through angry protest or manifestation of a symptom of distress, we as administrators, faculty and staff members often have struggled with how to respond. As we suggest above, a complicating factor in this is the resentment we can feel at not being enough and at having to reckon with our own disappointment and guilt in somehow falling short in our efforts to be helpful. While some student distress is an inevitable product of having promised to students experiences that we cannot deliver, some distress simply reflects the hard truths about life—namely, that none of us get our longed-for completion and that life in its chances and randomness impacts us all differently.

We do not say this to promote apathy and helplessness but rather as an existential truth that pertains to the developmental process of “becoming” with which we all must contend if we are to engage life fully. When we are small children, we must give up our omnipotent longing for completion and our idealized belief in someone else, “the other,” who can satiate every need. When we do so, we initially feel anger and rage and then, a bit later, sadness and guilt as we realize how hurtful we have been to others in our resistance to accepting this limitation of life and living. We underline here that this realization is not a solitary (completely intra-psychic) ​​event but, rather, an interpersonal (inter-psychic) ​​achievement. Of central importance in the ultimate acceptance of limitation and shortfall is how our early caregivers tolerate and even embrace their own imperfections and incompletion.

However, when we as parents and then, by extension, as older adults in our institutions of higher learning cannot tolerate our own imperfections and guilt, we unfortunately incline toward refusing to use our authority appropriately. We get cloudy about what boundaries to insist on as students struggle with their own and others’ limitations.

For example, students are inclined to come to us in administration with all manner of complaints, whether they be about institutional policies, interpersonal difficulties, hurt and upset about what they perceive as inflexible academic deadlines, or general dissatisfaction with how things are done. How often in these instances do we work to not only understand their complaints but also to set limits about what we see as reasonable for them to expect from us? In other words, how often are we able to set limits, whether by saying that a deadline is indeed fixed or that there may not be money to support a student in need? While we may personally wish to shift the deadline or provide more resources and agree with them about the “unfairness” of the situation, our role requires us to hold the boundary despite our personal views. However, when we feel consumed by our own guilt, badness or even resentment at being in this position, we may too quickly try to appease these students, offering reparative actions that in some cases cannot be fulfilled and through doing so, co-constructing a vicious cycle.

When we as administrators, faculty or staff long to be the all-giving parent, we lose out on the opportunity to create the caregiving community whose acknowledgment of its own limitations allows, paradoxically, for it and others who interact with it to find solid footing . Our anxious and depressed embodiment of our incompletion and imperfection sets the tone for students to be distressed and anxiously adrift.

Concluding Thoughts

Our attempt to shift the question about “what is wrong with students” pulls us toward seeing a student suffering as a symptom of larger institutional challenges. When considered this way, we might think of our institutions (composed of students and adults) as the patient. In doing so, we create space to think about how we co-construct environments that promote mental distress that is unfairly saddled on our adolescent and young adult students.

Shifting our perspective enables us to explore three related strands that contribute to the student mental health crisis. While not a comprehensive explanation of the totality of student mental distress, consideration of these factors enables us to consider more fully the existential and developmental contexts of meaning making that students experience.

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