Understanding College Students’ Mental Health — Dr. Gregg Henriques

Howler Monkey Family Meeting, Pantanal, Brazil

I’m on a list serve, founded by friend and author, Daniel Goertz, of The Listening Society and Nordic Ideology. For the most part, the posts are esoterica from philosophers mostly outside the academy — which makes it somewhat interesting, in that Integral domains are covered. But every now and then, some material gets posted that I think really gives deep insight into the problems the world is facing. This guest blog post is one of those posts. Written by Dr. Gregg Henriques, who also writes on ‘Theory of Everything’ kinds of subject matter (he’s the author of the Tree of Knowledge framework for attempting to unify psychology) drilling down into how our young people’s minds are changing is vital as we course-correct through this deeply turbulent societal time. Gregg’s work is somewhere between more surface-level psychology and my own deep, system-y stuff.

So… without further ado — here’s Gregg’s piece.

Understanding College Student Mental Health

Given my writings on the college student mental health crisis (see here, here, and here), I am often asked, “What is really going on with the increases in demands for services and reports of serious mental health challenges?” and “If it is a real problem, what can we do about it?”

Here is the short story, at least for the USA:

We are seeing a dramatic increase in demand for services on college campuses. A big portion of this increase is almost certainly a function of a change in attitude about the meaning of therapy and being in distress. That is, it used to be that folks were much more reticent about acknowledging distress and seeking therapy, and now they are much more open about both. Indeed, I think this is a major change that is driving the increases in demand. In other words, in the past many people did have lots of emotional trauma that was basically denied, crushed, avoided, etc. Over the past 20 years, the mental health industry and culture have opened their hearts so to speak to this pain.

That is the good news. Unfortunately, there is more to the story. I think the data are clear that definitely are seeing real increases in mental health problems, most significantly in the area of anxiety, depression, and self-harm/suicidality. My view is that our society went from being unhealthily repressed 50 years ago to opening up sensitivity to injury and negative feelings. However, we opened up those doors without also cultivating anti-fragile, stoic, character building virtues. In other words, we fostered much greater access of vulnerable feelings, but did not help foster adaptive regulation. Instead, we have tended to simply validate the experience of threat and victimization and assert that everyone had a “right” to be protected without being clear about how to be a responsible adult who was adaptively regulated in a mature way. Not only that, but as Jonathan Haidt and others note, we have become obsessed with safety (what they call “safetyism”) in a way that cultivates a sensitivity to injury that leaves folks who have neurotic temperaments to be essentially “raw nerves”. I have heard a number of people claim that millennials are “spoiled.” I think it is more that they are overprotected by helicopter and snowplow parents and an unspoken philosophy of safetyism. In such parenting contexts, the victimized response of the child is reinforced, which can breed a toxic sensitivity. 

Finally, it must be acknowledged that parenting philosophy is only a piece of the puzzle. A strong case can be made that our fractured society, broken educational system, information overload, screen addictions, and disconnect from nature is breeding a massive feeling of alienation, perhaps especially in this generation. I view the “mental health crisis” as one of the great meta-crises facing us in the 21st Century.

Given that, let’s move to the second question: “What can be done to address this issue?” First, I believe that society needs some significant evolution in terms of both what we value and how we relate to each other. As this blog notes, I think we are facing a “meaning crisis” and are deeply confused about shared notions of what is good and true. In terms of college students, this means that education should be more focused on developing depth and character virtues and philosophies of the good life. Consistent with this blog’s mission, I believe that we should also be fostering empathy and values clarification across multiple levels of analysis.

More specifically for college students, I believe we need to raise awareness about mental health challenges in general and foster accessible narratives for dealing with them. For example, see this blog that provides an overview and this follow-up blog on addressing the issues and maintaining mental health. I also think colleges should cultivate the development of well-being centers, like this one found at George Mason University. And, I think psychologists should be working on assessment protocols that provide students a coherent map of their well-being and offer them guided interventions that foster healthy emotional and character development. For example, I developed an integrated approach to psychological mindfulness called CALM MO, that teaches individuals to become more reflective and responsive rather than reactive, and how to cultivate a “Metacognitive Observer (the MO; also stands for “modus operandi) that is Curious, Accepting, Loving-Compassionate, and Motivated toward Valued States of Being. A recent dissertation showed this was an effective 90 minute workshop. In addition, I have been involved in courses on well-being and adjustment that empirically demonstrated improvement in key domains.

The bottom line is that the world is changing. Fast. We need to be aware of the impact changes are having on our mental health and perhaps especially the mental health of our youth and we need integrative and empathetic models that foster emotional and relational health, optimal identity development, and a growth toward virtue attitude.

Dr. Gregg Henriques is Professor of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University in the APA-Accredited Combined-Integrated Doctoral Program in Clinical and School Psychology, where he formerly served as program director. Dr. Henriques received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Vermont and did his post-doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania, working with Dr. Aaron T. Beck. He teaches courses in psychotherapy integration, personality theory, personality assessment, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and engages in clinical supervision. Dr. Henriques’ primary area of scholarly interest is in theory development, having authored many professional publications on theory and practice and the book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology. He regularly shares his ideas about philosophy, psychological theory, psychotherapy, and politics in a popular Psychology Today blog called Theory of Knowledge, and he has started a Theory of Knowledge Society. He also studies depression, personality disorders, character functioning and well-being, and is working to develop a more unified approach to psychotherapy. He is an APA Fellow (Division 24; Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) and a licensed clinical psychologist in Virginia.

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