Depressed In College? This Could Be The Reason

by Kaitlin Stanford

Depression can hit hard at any age, but as research shows, college-age depression in particular is sadly common. A new book by Julie Lythcott-Haims is linking at least some of it back to a surprising source: your parents. (Well, sort of.) In How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims suggests that so-called "helicopter" parenting may cause college-age depression — and she's gathered loads of research to back up that claim. An excerpt from her book was recently shared on Slate earlier this week, and let me just say, it's definitely an eye-opener.

As for the official word on what "helicopter parenting" is, the Oxford Dictionary describes it as whenever a parent "takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children." And not just for a little while, either. Helicopter parents are often especially controlling of their children's decisions for years — sometimes even making decisions for them, or blocking those they wish to make for themselves. If you're suddenly having anxiety-inducing high school flashbacks of not being allowed to go to parties on Saturday nights, there may be some shades of this that kinda-sorta apply to you.

But in How to Raise An Adult, which was recently published by Henry Holt and Co., Lythcott-Haims writes that the real trouble with helicopter parenting is that parents are often "academically overbearing" in ways that have long-term psychological impacts once college rolls around.

Though Lythcott-Haims calls upon mountains of research in her book, she also has plenty of firsthand experience with the issue. After all, she spent 14 years as a Stanford University administrator, and was the dean of freshman and undergraduate advising until stepping down in 2012. From 2006 to 2008, she writes, she also served on the university's mental health task force, during which time she observed and analyzed the growing incidence of student depression up close. Though Lythcott-Haims and her colleagues tried their best to come up with ways for students and their teachers to cope with the epidemic, this process was not easy and often troubling. Behind closed office doors, she writes, Lythcott-Haims often saw and heard what she calls a "lack of intellectual and emotional freedom" in many students, and notes that at the root of it all was the pressure to succeed in their parents' eyes above all else. She continues:

In my years as dean, I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed they had to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano, and do community service for Africa, and, and, and. I talked with kids completely uninterested in the items on their own résumés. Some shrugged off any right to be bothered by their own lack of interest in what they were working on, saying, “My parents know what’s best for me."

This intense fear of failing for their parent was also discussed in Bill Deresiewicz's 2014 book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life , which Lythcott-Haims references throughout How To Raise An Adult. He writes, "[For students] haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure — often, in the first instance, by their parents' fear of failure — the cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential." To this point, Lythcott-Haims adds that she too saw this firsthand:

As dean, I saw a lack of intellectual and emotional freedom—this existential impotence—behind closed doors. The “excellent sheep” were in my office. Often brilliant, always accomplished, these students would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that these outwardly successful situations were their miserable lives.

These revelations are even more alarming when you consider the current rates of depression and suicide at college campuses throughout the country. A 2011 study by Emory University found that 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at least at one point or another within the past year. As for suicide, it claims the lives of some 1,000 students throughout the U.S. each year. Of course, while many of these cases could in no way be tied to over-parenting, the correlation is difficult to ignore.

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Lythcott-Haims also points to another survey conducted in 2013, of college counseling directors. In it, 95 percent said the number of students with "significant psychological problems" was a growing concern, while 70 percent said that the number of students "severe psychological problems" had increased in just the last year alone. They also reported that 24.5 percent of their student clients were taking psychotropic drugs like antidepressants.

The book also points to another upsetting study from 2013 done by the American College Health Association, which surveyed 100,000 college students across 153 different campuses. The stats were, to be honest, pretty heartbreaking: 84.3 percent said they felt overwhelmed by everything that was on their plate; 60.5 percent felt very sad; 57.0 percent felt very lonely; 51.3 percent felt overwhelming anxiety; and 8.0 percent seriously considered suicide.

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How To Be An Adult hits bookshelves just one month after yet another study came down hard on helicopter parenting. In June, Brigham Young University released findings from a follow-up study on the aggressive parenting style, which found that even with extra love and support, helicopter parenting isn't good for kids. "From our past work, we thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it," study author Larry Nelson told Science Daily. "Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative."

While that last part may sound like a bit of a no-brainer, it's pretty clear from all the research so far that it bears repeating — or better yet, it deserves to be shouted from the rooftops so that maybe, just maybe, parents will start loosening their grip well before their kids fly the nest.

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