In the eighth century, in a small town just outside Baghdad, a lonely individual wrote the following message on a wall: “May God water the days of togetherness with His rain and return every stranger to his home. There is no good in this world without togetherness and no joy in life without a loved one.” This melancholic Arabic graffiti captures the sentiment of the stranger, the individual distanced from his or her home and loved ones.
The start of a new academic year will see many young people around the world going off to college. Some will be moving away from home for the first time, leaving family and friends behind. My own son, who is going off to start university in the UK in a few days, spent most of his childhood in the UAE, which means he will have the additional challenge of being a third culture kid. Returning to a home nation that somehow doesn’t feel like home can add further stress to the first-year experience.
In many ways, the transition from secondary to tertiary education has come to represent an important and challenging rite of passage. Where traditional hunter-gatherer rites of passage might have involved facing lions, tigers and bears, today’s teenagers have loneliness, social isolation and failure to grapple with.
The rate of mental health disorders among college students has risen dramatically in recent decades. In response to this emerging campus crisis, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched the World Mental Health International College Student Project. One of the aims of this ongoing work is to determine the prevalence of common mental health disorders among first-year college students worldwide.
The data spans eight countries, 19 colleges and includes the assessment results of about 14,000 first-year students. The study found that nearly one-third of the students screened positive for a mental health disorder across a 12-month timeframe. Another study published earlier this year in the Journal of Adolescent Health focused on a survey sample of close to 800,000 US college students. The study found, among other things, that the rate of severe depression more than doubled between 2013 and 2018, rising from 9.4 to 21.1 per cent.
Nobody is sure why the rate of mental health disorders among college students has risen so rapidly in recent years. One frequently mentioned suspect, however, is social media. The excessive use of such technologies is associated with less face-to-face social interaction, reduced sleeping hours and increased exposure to cyber bullying – none of which is good for mental health.
Acknowledging that mental health disorders are a growing issue on campus, several universities now offer special well-being programmes for first-year students. Such courses typically aim to teach skills that will help students better cope with the social and emotional demands of their academic and personal lives.
A successful example of such a programme is Cambridge University's mindfulness skills for students. This programme, offered to first-year students, has been rigorously evaluated with the results published in the Lancet in 2017. Overall the course significantly reduced participants' stress levels, especially during exam periods. Compared to participants in the control group, the students on the mindfulness course were about a third less likely to experience problem levels of psychological distress.
The Cambridge initiative gives me optimism that we can reverse this troubling mental health trend. Moreover, the fact that this type of programme is preventative means participants are less likely to feel that others are judging them negatively for attending. Prevention is better than cure; it is also less stigmatising.
Teaching the how and why of psychological self-care is something we need to do more of, especially when we consider that 75 per cent of mental health disorders are well-established by the age of 24. Before they go to college and during their critical first year, we need to psychologically prepare students for all aspects of the challenging rite of passage that lies ahead.
Of course, it is not only the students that might be feeling a little vulnerable. Many parents, too, will have to cope with a kind of empty-nest syndrome. Apart from dealing with a sense of loss, parents also feel helpless, given their inability to know everything that is happening in their children's lives. This is only natural.
However, it becomes a problem when parents cannot let go, which can lead to anxiety, lack of sleep and the tendency to check in with their children more than they could possibly need to. The challenge is to strike a balance and to know how involved they need to be in their lives.
This is easier said than done, of course. And so, on September 14, when Liverpool play Newcastle United, there will be a vacant chair in my front room, the one where my son would typically sit. I know when I look at this chair, I will be filled with the sadness of separation.
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University