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Talking Mental Health In College- Q & A with Richard Kadison, M.D. of Harvard University

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Maria Pascucci, President of Campus Calm, had the opportunity to speak with Richard Kadison, MD, about why high schools and colleges are seeing an increase in the number of stressed students with mental health issues. Kadison is the Chief of the Mental Health Service at Harvard University Health Services and the author of College of the Overwhelmed: The campus mental health crisis and what to do about it. Kadison has specialized in campus mental health and student mental health treatment throughout his career.

Campus Quiet: Why is the number of students with mental health problems increasing at universities?

Kadison: There are many reasons why we are seeing an increase in the number of students with mental health problems. We’re seeing more students being diagnosed with serious problems in high school and functioning well enough to get into college. This is a group. I think there’s the millennial group of high school students with so-called helicopter parents who hover over them and basically make decisions for them. You know the old metaphor of teaching people to fish instead of getting them fish. I think high school hands out a lot of fish. Kids are also shuttled from one activity to another to build their college resume, don’t have much free time, and don’t really feel passionate about things.

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Campus Quiet: What part do lack of sleep, proper diet and exercise contribute to students being stressed?

Kadison: The lack of sleep I think is a big problem. College students sleep an average of 6 1/2 hours a night, and they are definitely experiencing symptoms of sleep deprivation, which messes up their immune systems, impairs their academic performance, and makes them more vulnerable to depression and bipolar disorder.

Exercise is another big issue. There is good evidence for milder forms of depression, four days of 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise works as well as antidepressants. Many college students become busy, stop exercising and eating healthily, become more depressed, have more difficulty getting work done, then become stressed and have more trouble sleeping. You get caught in this vicious circle.

Campus Quiet: What role does perfectionism play in the lives of stressed students? How does the Harvard Advisory Board deal with academic perfectionism among students?

Kadison: It’s certainly a big issue here and I would say most elite schools. I spoke to the directors of the other Ivies. There are two major thrusts. I would say you try to create a certain balance in the students’ lives. You must take care of yourself. Working all the time is not the best way to live. Having conversations with them about excellence versus perfection and working hard and trying to focus. But no test, no course, no situation will change or destroy your life. Life takes twists and turns that none of us expect.

First, you must learn to be resilient. Number two, learn some techniques and skills to manage stress because what you got in high school and college isn’t going to change once you get into the real world.

Campus Quiet: Who do you see more: above average boys or girls? Is it true that women seek help more than young men? Why or why not?

Kadison: I think the reason more women are seeking care is probably because women are more attuned to their feelings. There is less stigma. I don’t think the numbers are different – it’s just that men aren’t always smart enough to talk to anyone about it.

Campus Quiet: How do you work to help students find meaningful ways to establish their identity beyond grades and awards?

Kadison: That’s the challenge. It’s people figuring out who they are – we all have mistakes, we all make mistakes, and we all do things we wish we hadn’t done. The key really is getting to know yourself, figuring out how to accept yourself and doing the best you can. Out-focusing the students, re-balancing them to engage in their community. There is mounting evidence that as more students do something to help their community, such as working with high school kids or volunteering somewhere, those students are having far more satisfying college experiences than students who are totally up are self-focused. It creates an environment where that is really encouraged and rewarded.

Campus Quiet: Do you think our current academic culture allows children to learn how to make mistakes and fail safely?

Kadison: Well, I think part of the process is really educating the whole community. It’s not just the students. We try to conduct outreach activities and offer consultations for faculty, staff and home staff. However, the reality is, if the culture in the lab is such that the professor is in the lab by 3am and expects everyone else to be there by 3am, that’s not a healthy message for students.

I think mental health advocacy groups are a good idea because students listen to other students more than other working adults. Having advocacy groups so students can hear that getting depressed in college is nothing to be ashamed of and that if you come and talk to someone about it, it’s very treatable.

Campus Quiet: Is an Ivy League Education Always the Best Path to Success?

Kadison: I think students can get a great education at any school. There are students who come here to Harvard and don’t get a great education because it’s a bad fit for them. Being around other bright people who are totally focused on their academics isn’t helping them learn how to create any kind of balance in their lives. This leads to disappointment.

Campus Quiet: So many students see straight A’s and other academic achievements as stepping stones that lead them to a good college, which leads them to a good grad school, then a good job, and finally a happy life. Does our society place too much value on this one path to happiness and prosperity?

Kadison: As far as students see grades as stepping stones, I think that’s true. There is some reality in there and it is also a problem. I think that’s to some extent because of college admissions people, that having a balanced life and being involved in your community is just as important as being academically successful. Do other things that you are passionate about.

Thanks to Maria Pascucci

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