Student Stresses Are Mental As Well As Financial


Although I had been offered some academic scholarships after a pretty distinguished high school career, my parents had a great ritual. After formally declining them, I had to save and overlap (and trim) all of the letters and put them in a frame for the living room wall.

The idea of actually accepting one of them — they were all pretty far from the greater Boston area where we lived — never even came up.  As a precocious over-achiever, I had skipped a couple of grades and was only 15. They  told me I was too young to even think about such fantasies as going to a university.

I’m glad that I had parents that loved me so much and worried about my well-being.  But gee whiz – I don’t think Doogie Houser had over-protective parents.

Anyway, it was two against one, and I was still a minor and financially dependent upon them. There was a non-negligible scholarship, a work study program, and numerous considerations from one of Boston’s fine local universities.  My mother dropped me off at classes and picked me up, since student parking was both expensive and difficult to get.

Of course I never really “felt” like a freshman. I managed, with some difficulty, to convince my mother to either drop me off early or pick me up late.  I needed to meet colleagues.   All I really cared about academically were the necessary prerequisites for medical school, in terms of courses or grades, but I knew I was in the middle of a rich, seething subculture of the youthful.

There were some activities I would never be a part of, like dating the football team or being a member of a sorority.  Types like me did not do those things.  But I was so fascinated by large number of people whose age was somewhere near mine.  I walked up to them and shook hands and said “hello,” whether they sat on the stoop in front of the chemistry building or in the television lounge at the Student Union.

The first thing I learned was to avoid those with the glassy eyed stare who tried to sell me flowers.  It was the days when the “Moonies”were on the street.  I even remember an article I read somewhere about how freshmen and seniors were the most vulnerable to cults or brainwashing or anything, because there are thresholds in life, and the start and the end of the four year college career were the strongest of thresholds.

Networking structures were present, and I got to know some pre-meds and pre-dents who lived in the dorms and were visited by their parents.  I got to know some people who actually seemed to be trying to build careers, some who were terrified of whether they would get jobs (yes, back then) and I saw, from those with whom I spoke, ranging from the wise to the trivial, that this was a stage in maturation.

My excessively protective parents were trying to hold me back (what else was new?) but I knew by then I would be successful at being a doctor, although I had already told them I would go wherever I had to go.  I told them not to expect me to stay home and practice in the garage, which I honestly think the entire family expected. I did not yet know I would end up in France for a bit.

Most freshmen I knew still had parents paying their tuition. I was a comparative rarity with my work-study program, which started me in a public library and got me into the hospital milieu where I have spent a big hunk of my life.

Today, students – on the average — are older and finances are tougher.

I wanted to get back to the original UCLA document. I mean, they looked at 279 universities, so it is entirely possible there is a grain of absolute truth here. UCLA charges for the report — I suppose this is one way to support academics –but it goes against my grain, so I went for the free summary “brief” report.

First, things are tougher for women in general, with more reporting mental stress.  This is not a new finding.  Men have lots of ways to deal with stress in groups — athletics, ritualistic use of alcohol and a lot of sexual conquests.

I was early enough that I was the first woman to do a lot of the things I did — a story you just don’t hear that much anymore. Still, these women are unlikely to be studying home economics.

Most professors are male and female role models are few. Young women often have called or written me in the past asking how one gets through the mess and struggle, and that does not happen so much now.  So things must be getting better but the kinds of attitudes that women can find cannot have disappeared as completely as snow in spring.

Remember, any of you young women who happen to be reading this — there are very few jobs that require either a penis or vagina and they are mostly things that are illegal, immoral or in Nevada.

So put your brain and heart together and find your true passion in your own brain and heart and follow it. The rest will come together if you know inside what you really want.

“Financial concerns still abound,” is the heading of one paragraph of the brief report. Gag me with a spoon! Some of my patients have indeed been overage Valley Girls in some of my more bizarre consultative venues, so I can assure you I am not the only person who still says this.

Everyone is under previously non-existent levels of financial stress. My favorite example comes from “medical” diet plans which in my personal opinion are not worth the paper they are printed out on (or the electrons on a cathode-ray screen).

No less a person than a waitress at a buffet restaurant told me basically that she was going to succeed because the diet plan was costing her husband a tremendous amount of money. From the expression on her face I suspect she was eating plenty less than whatever was “permitted,” but believe me, this woman was going to succeed.

My husband remarked that he knew someone who had followed the same “medical” plan three times and never seemed to have managed to keep off the weight. She rapidly protested this would be the only time.

As the legendary Pete Seeger said — “When will they ever learn?”

But back to the idea of college. Sometimes I used to think that my fellow students had parents who were basically paying to get them out of the way. My university may have been a “party school” for many, for I know pot was very widely available, having been often offered it plenty of time.

My desire to “experiment” was more aligned with white lab coats, test tubes and clipboards than damaging my lungs with toxic smoke, my brain cells with euphoric chemicals, and my spotless criminal record with a drug bust. I was determined to get a medical license some day and a rap sheet wasn’t conducive to that goal.

As you can imagine, my determination to succeed was viewed as “uptightness.” My helpful classmates had just the remedy for this condition – smoking pot (which brings us full circle, doesn’t it?). I actually bucked and ran — literally ran from a party where some was, yelling that not only did I NOT want any “weed” – I didn’t want anybody to mention I’d been in the same building with that stuff!

Yeah, I guess that could be called “uptight.” Especially in the 60s.

I doubt many parents have any inclination to knowingly send an adolescent to a four-year party.  Mine certainly didn’t.

I have heard little about pot among today’s college co-eds, which does not mean it does not happen.  It probably means they find it easier to feign ADD (attention deficit disorder) to get either medical marijuana or a little stimulant.  Some say it helps them on tests – but we know mostly it goes to recreational usage.

I’ve written before about people taking prescription drugs to help with SAT or entrance exams or just mid-terms and finals.  They don’t help much, but any advantage they might confer disappears rapidly. Oh yeah – and if you don’t have the illness that you’re taking the drugs for, all kinds of unpleasant things can happen to you.  Ah – to be young and indestructible!

I find it very easy to imagine parents saying — with tuition at an all time high in most places — “I am not paying this for you to party.  If I am paying for all this, you damned well better get decent grades and find a job.”

An incipient hip-hop composer with two earlobe  spreaders who had an interest in vocal performance actually told me his dad had said almost exactly that.  I did not know how to counsel him about career future. I told him to talk to someone who did for a living what he wanted to do, or someone at college on that one. Good luck with finding either of those.

Colleges never have been trade schools.  With rising tuition, maybe some people prefer trade schools and maybe those people make more faster.  I went to a “trade school” that requires college first for most folks.  It was called “med school.”

Plenty of those surveyed thought that a great thing about college was that it increases earning power.  Survey after survey has shown this to be true, but this is also the last time in life that most people get to study something other than their field of concentration.

I have been amazed how knowledge I have acquired seems to waft into my life and help me do things, usually professionally related.  If I can tell, for example, a young lesbian seeking a career as a writer about Gertrude Stein, and print something off the internet and in some way inspire her that her ambitions can happen, then my personal reading was worth it.  I told her things I did not learn in medical school or psychiatry training and I helped her by being a whole human being.
The things in college that put stress on human beings do not seem to be the same things that make people whole human beings.  With the emphasis on money and earning power, something less tangible about being human seems to be being lost. This is not the major worry from the study I’m quoting, though.
There are a lot of young people, who — at least at the initial part of this process, maybe as early as being high school seniors — are feeling overwhelmed. They admitted this to the study. Will they seek help? How can they be helped? I have sent people to college clinics for counseling.  The good news is that it is usually free.  The bad news is that the quality is variable.  Practitioners in these venues are not usually tested for aptitude as therapists.

Occasionally you can come up with a real therapeutic personality, an intuitive who cares and can help someone else.  Unfortunately, most people will make money faster as a bartender or hairdresser and may not have any inclination to go for any kind of therapy school, even the two year associates’ degree.

If someone gets really depressed and needs medication, the access to a psychiatrist may be even more problematic. People do not want to be counseling or psychiatry patients.  There is still a stigma, especially among peers like students.

The only college students I have seen in , for example, county mental health, have been really sick, or fairly good liars who wanted “good drugs.”

I just saw Egyptian rioting graphically depicted on television, a few minutes before writing this. Make no mistake about it, this is a very scary world, including for this postmenopausal woman who thinks the daily news is beginning to sound a little like the crusades.

How can we support these young men and women?  The college mental health clinics are probably overwhelmed already.  Group programs, screening, outreach from upper-class humans in fields in which freshman have indicated interest in (including undecided for those with majors undecided) anything that involves more human contact cannot and will not be wrong.

Universities should be the most sensitive among human institutions when looking at human capital not yet totally developed.

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