Let me begin by saying that my heart goes out to each person who lost friends and loved ones in the April 16, 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech Campus. Far too many lives were cut short — lives full of promise, individuals who left their mark on this world through each person they loved.
After any tragedy, it’s only human nature to ask yourself “Why?” and to demand answers. I am certainly not going to attempt to point fingers or to use this tragedy to further my own political agenda. What I can offer is idealistic, maybe, but effective just the same: If regular, open and candid discussions about mental health were going on in living rooms, schools and boardrooms across the country; if people recognized the urgency in and were just as comfortable with seeking professional help for depression, anxiety, stress and rage as they were for things like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, perhaps tragedies like the one that occurred on the Virginia Tech Campus could be averted in the future. We can all help by taking care of ourselves!
A reader recently asked me, “What do you think friends, family and school administrators can do to help students under huge amounts of stress?”
o Students: Look for warning signs in friends. Appetite changes, or sleep disturbances, mood changes, weight gain or loss. If your friend is super stressed, let him or her vent. Listen to her. Let her cry on your shoulder. Then get her out of her present situation and take her someplace fun! Go rollerblading, watch a movie, or sing tunes off your favorite CD. Anything to help her relax.
If he or she needs more help than you can offer, visit your guidance office or campus mental health center for assistance. If it’s an emergency situation and you’re afraid that your friend might harm himself or others, call 9-1-1 or The National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-TALK.
o Parents: Serve as positive role models. If you’re working 80 hours per week and you never take five minutes to unwind, you’re sending a strong message to your kids about what’s important in life. When I interviewed a 17-year-old for an article on grades and stress I asked her, “What’s your single greatest worry with regard to grades?” She responded, “Probably my parents yelling at me. I have to work so hard to live up to their standards.” I think parents are afraid that if they tell their kids that it’s OK to lower their standards their kids will become lazy and their grades will suffer. That’s simply not true. Did you know that stress is the number one impediment to academic success? Encourage your kids to balance work with fun.
Also, initiate open discussions about mental health at home. If you’re having trouble coping with life’s challenges, show your child that you’re brave enough to first admit you’re having a problem and then seek out professional help. Let your kids know that you take your mental well-being just as seriously as you do your physical well-being.
o School administrators: Hold an assembly during school hours and let the students voice their concerns and suggest ways that their campus can help them. When kids are empowered with the tools to affect change they will feel less stressed. Talk about mental health issues affecting students. Take the shame out of it. Everyone gets stressed or depressed at times. There’s NOTHING to feel ashamed about. Administrators can also work with educators to find proactive ways to lower students’ stress. Like putting a limit on the number of tests students take in any given week, or enacting a no homework policy over vacations. Schools can also include lesson plans in health classes that deal with specific healthy ways to manage stress like deep breathing, Yoga, proper sleep and exercise.
Did you know?
In 2005, the American Psychiatric Association appointed a Presidential Task Force on Mental Health on College Campuses and reported that more students enter college already taking psychiatric medications, that more colleges are reporting increases in severe psychopathology in students, that campus mental health centers were prescribing more medications, and that suicide was the second leading cause of death among students.