An estimated 20 million students have now entered their college freshman year in this country. The grueling four years ahead should not be expected to be easy, nor should they be. Such is the process of commitment to challenge and personal growth, of educating and shaping students for success. But, as I pointed out last week, young adulthood is an especially critical and vulnerable period regarding mental health. According to the 2015 American Freshman Survey, nearly 10 percent of incoming college freshmen last year, close to an all-time record, reported feeling "frequently depressed."
We should have expected it. Across the U.S. there's been an uptick in the percentage of teens having episodes of depression. According to researchers at Columbia University in New York, roughly one in nine teens in the United States has suffered a major depressive episode at some point. In 2014, an estimated 15.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States reported having at least one major depressive episode in the past year. In addition, a federal data analysis also recently revealed suicide in the United States has now surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, with increases in every age group except older adults.
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College is a stressful period and a major transition time in life. Anxiety and academic stress are to be expected. But elevating the clinical focus on the metal wellbeing of students to address student needs has only recently been given the attention it deserves. Some 200,000 students nationwide participated in a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey last year. The results found record low levels of emotional health. While colleges and universities have seen an increase in students seeking mental health services over the past six years, a survey from the American College Health Association found that while students reported suffering from significant bouts of anxiety and depression, only 12 percent sought counseling to address the problem.
Students today are bombarded with daunting news about the deflated value of a college degree, of challenges in the job market, and of continued economic woes. They are also not immune to a wildfire of pessimism that swirls around this national election season, of widespread unhappiness, stress, and lack of hope; of shaken optimism about the future.
Is it that hard to believe this environment, as some experts suggest, may well be developing a sense of learned helplessness about events beyond our control within young people today? Is such pessimism proving toxic to these young people who represent the future of our nation?
In my life, I have always strived to be of a positive frame of mind. It is one of the "principles of life" I established years ago that has served me well. But I don't consider myself immune to pessimism. As George Will once complained, "Pessimism is as American as apple pie – frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese." By that, I assume he means "something we manufactured that's ultimately not good for our health."
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Now more than ever, we need to rediscover our sense of optimism and belief in our capabilities, regardless of the circumstances we are confronted with. For more than 25 years, through my foundation Kickstart Kids, I have tried to instill within middle school students – many at-risk young boys and girls from trying family situations – the mental and physical strength needed to deal with the challenges they will face in the future. My wife Gena and I have witnessed firsthand many of these youngsters grow into adulthood, face challenges head-on and overcome all obstacles that got in their way toward achievement.
As Corinthians 13:7 tells us, "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Life will inevitably deal us some bad hands from time to time. Life is never simple and being optimistic about our prospects doesn't necessarily mean being in a happy place. Yet many have found that optimism, persistence and resilience all go hand in hand; that optimism is a key ingredient in finding solutions to problems. And that the notion that the meaning of life lies in our responses to the challenges we encounter is a tenet that virtually every religion and philosophy of life teaches.
This may be why at Stanford University, "stop and smell the roses" is now not just a simple catch phrase, but a homework assignment. So-called "happiness classes" are now being looked at as a possible mandatory part of a core curriculum for all college freshmen. They are viewed as a measured response to the daunting workload university students face during their four years of classes, exams, meetings, internships and jobs to pay for it all – as an antidote to the metal strains that neuroscientists have identified as having the ability to alter organ function and damage health. Across the bay, at U.C. Berkeley, the 200-person course "The Science of Happiness" regularly leaves 400 or more consigned to the wait list. These classes are not being relegated to psychology majors, mind you, but to the student body as a whole.
Maybe we all could benefit from auditing such a course. I can see it now: "Optimism 101 – good for not only your mind but your body too!"
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.