For six months when I was in college, I just couldn’t sleep.
I dreaded going to bed; I knew I would wake up minutes later drenched in sweat, running tomorrow’s to-do list through my head.
My bed became the enemy. I was overworked, overtired, overbooked. I didn’t have time for sleep.
But when I looked at other students who had as much or more work than I did, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. How did these people sleep at night?
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So I would call my parents for advice. I was looking for some comfort, a subtle nod that I was doing the right thing. All I usually got, though, was a “You'll be fine, honey.”
And I’m grateful for it.
Anxiety is the No. 1 mental health concern presented by students to counseling centers at American college campuses, according to a recent study of more than 100,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University.
The cause? Some psychologists are pointing their fingers toward parents.
Dan Jones, director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., told The New York Times on May 27 that “a lot (of students) are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations. They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”
So, parents, own up.
I am a recent college graduate, and I saw students arrive at college unprepared for their new freedom and flexibility. They turned up with poor time-management skills and relied on support from home to make decisions of all sizes. The moment unhappiness or uncertainty struck, it was either a phone call to mom or an appointment at the counseling center.
Colleges have been forced to become pseudo-parents, offering freshmen seminar classes that teach students how to use their time and create feasible schedules.
American schools (and their counseling centers) are burdened with teaching students what they should have learned at home. That’s not their job. Schools engage and challenge; they shouldn’t have to coddle too.
Parents need to step it up when their kids are young. Give them the skills needed to be successful, well-organized adults. Then, after high school graduation, slip into the background.
For students who have diagnosed anxiety disorders, this is a different battle. Many of them come to college on medication and need strong support from family and mental health professionals.
But for the rest who wander into a college mental health center burned out from finals and a full schedule, let them struggle. Flounder. Fall.
Because, just as my parents assured me, they will be fine. A little bit of anxiety is just part of life.
Next time your college student calls for advice, just tell him or her to get some sleep.
Elizabeth Greiwe is the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board coordinator.