Crybabies on campus

What do students learn in college? Increasingly, they’re learning to be big babies, write Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic.  “Trigger warnings,” “microaggressions” and the zeal to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” are threatening students’ mental and emotional health, they write.
Campuses are supposed to be “safe spaces” where “young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” Never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.

Students expect college authorities “to act as both protectors and prosecutors,” they write. It’s a continuation of the message delivered by helicopter parents:  “Life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.”

A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Today’s college students are more likely to suffer from “severe psychological problems,” according to a 2013 survey of campus mental-health directors. Surveys also show students report high and rising rates of emotional distress, write Lukianoff and Haidt.

Cognitive behavioral therapy tries “to minimize distorted thinking” –such as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning, they write. People learn to recognize when their thinking is distorted, “describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line with those facts.”

When people . . .  free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.

The parallel to formal education is clear: cognitive behavioral therapy teaches good critical-thinking skills, the sort that educators have striven for so long to impart. By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis. But does campus life today foster critical thinking? Or does it coax students to think in more-distorted ways?

Freshman orientation — now devoted to warning students not to offend others — should teach them this kind of thinking, Lukianoff and Haidt suggest. Students can learn to deal with offensive words and ideas without mommy, daddy or the dean of students.

College assesses mental health threats

At a Dallas community college, a team of volunteers assesses whether troubled students need counseling or psychiatric treatment. Most of those referred don’t turn out to be threats, but many could use some help.

Obama urges school safety, mental health grants

In addition to various gun control measures, President Obama wants to fund school safety and mental health initiatives in response to the Sandy Hook massacre, reports Ed Week.

A new, $150 million Comprehensive School Safety Program would fund 1,000 additional school resource officers (guards), psychologists, social workers and counselors.  Another $30 million would help school districts develop emergency plans.

Obama wants $50 million to help 8,000 schools “put in place new strategies to improve school climate and discipline, such as consistent rules and rewards for good behavior,” reports Ed Week.

The mental health package would improve young people’s access to mental health services. Also:

 $15 million to help teachers and other adults who work with youth provide “Mental Health First Aid,” enabling them to identify students with mental health problems early and steer them toward treatment;

$40 million to help districts work with law enforcement and other local agencies to coordinate services for students who demonstrate need;

$25 million to finance new, state-based strategies to identify individuals ages 16 to 25 with mental health and substance abuse issues and get them the care they need.

$25 million to help schools offer mental health services aimed at combating trauma, anxiety, and bolstering conflict resolution; and,

$50 million in new money to train social workers, counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals.

Before Newtown, Obama proposed eliminating grants designated for school counselors and nearly $300 million aimed at school safety, notes Ed Week. Now the administration is back to creating little pots of federal money for specific uses.

My daughter interned with the California Education Department’s office on preventing school violence two years after the Columbine massacre. She created a web site showing grants districts could seek to fund various anti-violence programs. When that was done, she was asked to help districts evaluate the various programs by posting links to research on their effectiveness. There was no such research. Perhaps we’re wiser now on what works for troubled kids.

Obama’s proposals — “well-intentioned and largely symbolic” — could undermine instruction by wasting time, energy and money preparing for a exceptionally unlikely event, writes Rick Hess.

The president’s proposed “mental health first aid” training grant works out to $150 per school.

. . . it’s likely educators will get a few hours of desultory training, which will be just enough to waste their time without making a difference. Or, if they actually get the training and support they need to do this well (with the $150 per school!), it’ll distract from training in their core work of preparing instruction, crafting assessments, monitoring student learning, and so forth.

An array of federal grants create “extra paperwork, meetings, and opportunities for small-dollar consultants,” writes Hess.

Bipolar or TDD? Asperger's or autism spectrum?

Proposed changes in psychiatrists’ diagnostic manual could introduce “new mental disorders,” reports the Washington Post.

Children who throw too many tantrums could be diagnosed with “temper dysregulation with dysphoria.” Teenagers who are particularly eccentric might be candidates for treatment for “psychosis risk syndrome.” Men who are just way too interested in sex face being labeled as suffering from “hypersexual disorder.”

Asperger’s Syndrome and autism could become “autism spectrum disorders,” a change opposed by many Asperger’s advocates.

Advocates say the new categories are more precise. Critics say people in normal distress will be misdiagnosed, put on medication and stigmatized by insurance companies.

Among the concerns are proposals to create “risk syndromes” in the hopes that early diagnosis and treatment will stave off the full-blown conditions. For example, the proposals would create a “psychosis risk syndrome” for people who have mild symptoms found in psychotic disorders, such as “excessive suspicion, delusions and disorganized speech or behavior.”

“There will be adolescents who are a little odd and have funny ideas, and this will label them as pre-psychotic,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the DSM revision process.

“Temper Dysregulation with Dysphoria” is intended “to counter a huge increase in the number children being treated for bipolar disorder by creating a more specific diagnosis,” the Post reports. But some fear it will encourage unneeded treatment of moody kids.

In addition to classifying the symptoms of grief that many people experience after the death of a loved one as “depression,” the proposals include adding “binge eating” and “gambling addiction” as bona fide psychiatric conditions; they also raise the possibility of making “Internet addiction” a future diagnosis.

The American Psychiatric Association will listen to feedback before deciding on the proposed changes for the new diagnostic manual, due out in 2013.

Youth more depressed than in Depression

High school and college students exhibit more anxiety and mental health problems than young people in the Great Depression, reports a study analyzing survey responses from 1938 to 2007.

Jean Twenge, a San Diego State professor who authored the study, speculates that “a popular culture increasingly focused on the external – from wealth to looks and status – has contributed” to the rise in mental health issues.

In the depths of the Depression, only 1 percent of young people surveyed were considered clinically depressed; by 2007 that was up to six percent.

Twenge said the most current numbers may even be low given all the students taking antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, which help alleviate symptoms the survey asks about.

Are young people  more stressed — or more likely to complain about their problems?