Psychological Education as a path to smarter college students
Source: Isaiah Pickens/Fotolia
A teary-eyed teenager returns home after a particularly difficult exam. This isn’t the first time she’s experienced this challenge, but it’s the first time no one is home to help her with it. The reason: her home is a dorm room a couple hundred miles from the only support system she’s known. Transitioning from the predictability of high school and stability of built-in social supports to the autonomy of college and self-driven connections with others has the potential to destabilize relatively healthy adolescents in addition to those struggling with mental health challenges. Mental health issues that arise during college can often become more than a minor impediment—with research showing 64% of young adults who are no longer in college cite mental health related reasons as a primary culprit. While one of the major goals of a successful college experience is to develop young people who are able to productively contribute to society, obstacles to becoming an adult who can think critically about life issues and make healthy life choices may be as rooted in mental health education deficits as academic deficiencies.
Psychology is the art of telling human stories through science. As a perennial Introduction to Psychology professor (by choice, not punishment), it consistently amazes me how much students learn about themselves through exposure to basic psychological concepts during the semester.
The social sciences, psychology in particular, provide a gateway to understanding how sleep can impact mood, the importance of effectively multitasking (or not multitasking), and insight into a host of everyday issues that help young people make better life decisions. Colleges have started to acknowledge the connection between social-emotional health and academic success with the incorporation of First Year Experience programs and ongoing student support projects that attempt to engage students in a more holistic manner through cohort-wide readings, peer support groups, and integration of transition services.
Targeted preventive approaches to students’ mental health have shown promise, but what if these results are marginal compared to what is possible if a student’s education is infused with understanding social scientific principles? An innovative program at Georgetown University, The Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning, has explored this hypothesis by centering several undergraduate courses on social science and health related material. By providing biology courses that explore the genetic predispositions to mental health challenges or a math course focused on blood alcohol levels and health risks, students are challenged to incorporate lessons learned during class into daily life practices.
Despite promising efforts from universities, stigma still exists. Stigma related to accessing mental health services remains an obstacle, but equally important, is the stigma surrounding examining our beliefs about individuals from marginalized communities (read: political correctness). Whether it is an ethnic minority, LGBT, law enforcement or immigrant community, the beliefs we have about others and our actions based on these beliefs create the context that may exacerbate mental health problems within members of these communities while simultaneously impeding access to mental health services. Exposing my students to Milgram’s Obedience study or the Stanford Prison Experiment while highlighting our propensity to make automatic assumptions about others and ourselves that can lead to severe mental distress are lessons students will not receive from media that shies away from nuance or family who may understandably lean more on self-preservation than science. These are the lessons that higher education has the tools to teach by collaborating with mental health professionals and using psychological principles to undergird the holistic education of the next generation. Most importantly, these are lessons that will produce individuals who not only understand how to keep themselves healthy enough to best use the knowledge acquired in college, but also who know how to promote a social context that gives others the best chance to be healthy as well.