Stress, depression and anxiety are on the rise among university students, so how do we support our children as they embark on this disruptive journey during what can be a difficult phase of their lives?
‘It’s well documented that there’s a spike in teen depression and anxiety. The statistics are alarming and suggest our teens are in crisis,’ says Karen Moross, counsellor, mediator and facilitator with The Family Life Centre.
These symptoms are especially prevalent among university students, who suffer higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says in 2018 they dealt with more cases involving university students than ever before.
In one study conducted by Stellenbosch University, it was found 12% of university students experienced symptoms of
depression, and 15% reported symptoms of anxiety. Almost a quarter of the students in the study said they had also experienced suicidal thoughts – a much higher rate than the national average of 9.1% of the population.
The problem isn’t unique to South Africa: a UK study found suicide rates among university students had increased by 56% between 2007 and 2016, while a US study found almost 40% of students reported feeling depressed, with 61% saying they had experienced overwhelming anxiety during 2017. So, why are our kids so much more vulnerable
during their tertiary study years?
A perfect storm
Adolescence is a time of huge social and emotional change for young people. Karen explains they’re entering into complicated social networks and attempting to assert their independence from their parents. This push for independence during their transition into adulthood involves a good deal of uncertainty for students, which is compounded by the pressure to perform well in a new, demanding environment, all while trying to establish their own identity.
Academic pressure, intimidating workloads, familial expectations, social pressures and financial concerns can
all take a toll on students, creating an unhealthy behaviour cycle. Being in such a state of distress may lead to poorer academic performance and dishonesty, and may prompt students to turn to alcohol and substance abuse, all of which only deepen their feelings of hopelessness and lack of control.
At the same time, many university-age adolescents may begin to experience symptoms of mental health disorders for the first time. Karen says many students are experiencing depression, stress and anxiety every day without any knowledge that they’re actually suffering from a mental illness. This is probably because the average onset of many
mental health issues, including bipolar disorder and depression, takes place in early adulthood and can be
compounded by outside stressors.
‘Psychologists believe some people have a genetic predisposition towards depression, while others develop
depression due to external and environmental factors. Loneliness and social isolation, bullying, abuse, loss and conflict can result in depression and anxiety,’ says Karen. She also highlights other possible contributors to poor mental health for university students, including family problems, poverty and a lack of resources, and the explosion of social media and technology, which have drastically altered the way they communicate and interact.
Teens and young adults have to face these challenges before their brains have fully matured. The part of the brain that helps to control impulses and reason logically – the prefrontal cortex – is only fully developed by the age of 25, so they process information differently and analyse information using the emotional part of the brain. This could lead to more risk-taking behaviour and make them more likely to bow to peer pressure.
What to look out for
Many teens and young adults may not be able to articulate the ways in which their mental health is suffering, or might avoid doing so for fear of stigma. It’s important to check in regularly with your kids, especially at this crucial
transitional stage, and watch for warning signs, including:
- Becoming antisocial and withdrawing from friends and family
- Fatigue and a general lack of energy
- Worsening self-esteem
- Poor concentration
- Notable weight loss or gain
- A loss of interest in activities or hobbies they previously enjoyed
- Substance abuse
How to mentally support your kids
According to Karen, the widespread stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide are a major deterrent when it
comes to seeking help. The stigma can also discourage people from reaching out to offer help. Karen says, ‘Most people are too scared to talk about the topic, or if they do bring it up, they don’t really know what to say or how to help someone.’ This can add to the feelings of hopelessness for students experiencing depression and anxiety – they often feel nothing can help their situation.
‘While many parents feel they don’t have the tools to address these topics with their kids, the conversation is too
important to avoid,’ she advises. Karen encourages parents to let kids know they have support and there are people who can assist, even if there are no warning signs. This can help combat the stigma around mental health, as it will reassure kids any feelings they may face in the future are normal and can be dealt with, or if they see fellow students struggling they can offer support.
‘Start an honest and open dialogue with your kids, speaking gently and listening carefully as you work through their problems and worries. Let them know they’re not alone and their situation is not hopeless,’ says Karen. It’s important
to broach these topics with your teens, as all too often parents are completely unaware of what’s really happening in
their children’s lives.
‘Research has shown that adolescents prefer to confide in friends and peers, and are reluctant to confide in adults. It’s clear that adolescence is a challenging time and as a parent and counsellor I cannot stress enough how important it is for parents to communicate with their teens – the outcome is empowering for all,’ Karen advises.
FEATURE: CAITLIN GENG PHOTO: FOTOLIA.COM