Protecting Teens' Mental Health Is a Wise Investment

As kids settle into college life, parents and teachers need to be on the lookout for signs of anxiety and depression and be ready to step in to help.

My son graduated from high school this summer and now attends college in Savannah, Ga., studying architecture. Among other recognitions, he was named high school athlete of the year, he holds five school track records, he has received several team leadership awards and is a member of the National Honor Society — on top of averaging 135 volunteer hours a year during high school. Now he is a college freshman in a new city, sharing a dorm room with two roommates, and must learn to balance all the freedoms that come with college life with all the responsibilities that come with college coursework.

In my work as a wealth adviser, an essential part of planning for client families is raising awareness of financial and lifestyle risks that bear on their success and well-being. One component of our planning conversation centers on health maintenance and teens in transition to college life — a uniquely sensitive subject. At 18, my son thinks he is an adult — and our laws treat him as an adult, too. But the human brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 26. College students are largely driven by emotion.

Psychology Today reports that “The neurological pathways between the ‘lower’ emotional, pleasure-seeking and impulsive centers and the ‘higher’ cortical regions that consider alternative solutions, consequences of actions, and utilize logic and reasoning to offset emotional pressures are still in the process of formation. Technically, the adult architecture of the brain — that is, the myelination of the neurons — is not yet fully established. So, youth still tend to be ruled by feeling, impulse and pleasure seeking — which really complicates decision making and behavior in highly charged situations — situations that are very common in college.”

The struggles teens face transitioning from the supportive, although many times highly competitive, environment of high school to the mountainous expectations and life-altering outcomes at college can be overwhelming. These challenges often increase teen anxiety and inflame feelings of hopelessness and isolation. It is especially dangerous for students already suffering from clinical anxiety and depression. The rates of suicide ideation among college students are alarming.

College Degree Research reports that 6% of undergraduates seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, and almost half of them never told anyone. Harvard Medical School reports that 25% of students reported being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health disorder and 20% had thought about suicide, with 9% having attempted suicide and nearly 20% reporting self-injury. The suicide rate among young adults has tripled since the 1950s; Inside Higher Ed reports that of the largest 100 colleges in the country, only 46 even keep track of suicide statistics at their schools.

In fact, student anxiety is considered so serious that Lisa Adams, director of counseling at the University of West Georgia and the president of the American College Counseling Association, thinks that even just publishing statistics could set off some students: “Students are really sensitive to this issue, this generation of students, anxious and depressed already, really high levels of alert,” she says. “Their ability to cope with that kind of news is already poor.” The ability to measure student suicide rates is complicated by the fact that many students suffering from depression and anxiety drop out of college.

The effects of suicide are global. Times Higher Education, in London, England, reports that family members of suicide victims were 80% more likely to leave college or employment compared with losses from other causes. Even more alarming is that friends and family members of suicide victims were 65% more likely to attempt suicide themselves. The National Union of Students, in the United Kingdom, reported that 78% of students suffered from mental health issues and 33% of those had suicidal thoughts.

This situation is considered by many to be a mental health crisis, but student support services cannot meet the demand. Psychology Today reports that the ratio of certified college counselors to students overall is about one counselor for every 1,000-2,000 students for smaller colleges and one counselor for every 2,000-3,500 at larger universities.

Assuming 20% of students seek counseling, then a college counseling center should expect a caseload of 300-450 patients every semester. In fact, universities report that waiting periods to see a counselor average about two weeks, which may not seem bad, but those are averages. During stressful periods, like midterms and finals, the average wait is up to a month.

The key to addressing this health care crisis is raising awareness among students, parents, professors and staff to recognize symptoms of heightened stress and anxiety while removing the obstacles that keep students from seeking help. Mental health benefits are grossly underinsured in most health care plans, and society still ostracizes those who ever seek mental health services. For an excellent, well-researched look at mental health in the U.S., read the work of Yohara Passela, a native of Sri Lanka, attending Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, titled “Mental Illness and Suicide Rates.”

Passela writes: “Oftentimes when someone has an ‘invisible’ disorder such as a mental illness, their symptoms are not taken as seriously in society when compared to a physical condition. People that suffer from a mental illness constantly face negative stigma from those surrounding them. Unfortunately, this has a substantial negative impact and makes the disease more difficult to deal with. In addition, the health care system in the United States does not effectively cater towards helping those who suffer from an ‘invisible illness,’ which adds to the increased pressure of having to live with a mental disorder. The combination of dealing with negative stigma and improper care ultimately contributes to the increasing suicide rates in the United States. Lives are being taken as a result of issues that can be fixed.”

I often write about the connection between financial success and making smart lifestyle decisions. Protecting your health, mental and physical, is the best investment you can make, second only to your investment in your children’s future well-being.

About the Author

Timothy Barrett, Trust Counsel

Senior Vice President, Argent Trust Company

Timothy Barrett is a senior vice president and trust counsel with Argent Trust Company. Timothy is a graduate of the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, 2016 Bingham Fellow, a board member of the Metro Louisville Estate Planning Council, and is a member of the Louisville, Kentucky and Indiana Bar Associations, and the University of Kentucky Estate Planning Institute Program Planning Committee.

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