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A Mental Health Game Plan for College Students and FamiliesRob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC
There’s something going on with our students right now, and it can be hard to put a finger on. I saw it in many of my students this semester and you may see it as your student comes home — or emerges from their room as their online semester ends.
There’s been a lot of attention recently on college student mental health. A growing number of students are facing serious mental health issues and we need to pay attention. CollegiateParent just shared a series of articles about student mental health.
What I saw in my students, and you may recognize in yours, was not serious depression or anxiety. It was physical and mental exhaustion, lack of motivation, and difficulty getting things done.
There are several names for what students are feeling — burnout, pandemic fatigue, pandemic blues, or what New York Times writer Adam Grant calls “languishing.” Whatever we choose to call it, it’s the opposite of thriving, and it’s a lot “like looking at the world through a foggy windshield.”
Students have described their feeling in various but similar ways. “I don’t feel the point of it.” “My mind never gets a chance to fully rest.” “I’m struggling to do the bare minimum.”
We may recognize the symptoms of burnout because it is a common feeling right now. We may even be experiencing it ourselves. The prolonged stress of this year has taken a toll.
The Mayo Clinic describes the following symptoms of job burnout and they line up perfectly with what I saw in many of my students:
Other symptoms of burnout that are common in students include:
It’s a long list, but essentially it boils down to having nothing left in the tank and nothing left to give.
We’ve all had a difficult year. Last spring we thought we were running a 5K (3.1 miles) and then we thought maybe the pandemic would become a 10K (6.2 miles). But the finish line kept moving. It turned out we were embarking on a full 26.2 mile marathon.
If you’ve ever watched the end of a marathon, you know that most runners cross the finish line with nothing left. Sometimes they crawl. This pandemic year, with its social distancing, remote learning and open-ended, ambiguous timeline has left many students feeling that way. They’re totally spent.
We have all been in high-intensity, emotional survival mode for longer than our energy can sustain and we’re exhausted. The Mayo Clinic lists five primary causes of burnout that again perfectly describe my students.
Students have not only experienced losses this year, many had no break this spring. Many colleges cancelled spring break, which made Covid sense, but gave students no opportunity to decompress, sleep and rest, recharge, catch up on work, or take a break from routine.
Experts tell us there are things we can do to address burnout or that languishing feeling. You may need to help your student understand steps they can take toward recovery.
When your student returns home (or completes their remote semester), they need to recharge. Their battery is running low.
Let your student take the lead, but guide gently. Start with the question, “What do you need right now?”
Here are a few suggestions to share with your student, and they may be even better if you can do some of them together. You may need recharging as well. It's an opportunity to reconnect and relax together.
In spite of our difficult year, many students may actually be doing better than we think.
Although discussions about mental health are important, and it's critical to notice the warning signs of a serious problem, we sometimes forget that students are resilient. Most will recharge their batteries and bounce back — with a little help from us.
After a year in survival mode, you can help your student focus on a new goal. The opposite of languishing is flourishing, finding a feeling of overall well-being. Help your student look for that sense of meaning, mastery and mattering that makes life better for everyone.
Help your student take the best possible care of themselves and get support when they need it.