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A Longtime College Professor Reveals How Her Students Have Changed

The one thing they want? A normal life.

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illustration of college student looking to the side
Josie Norton
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I have been a journalism  professor for more than three decades and am now an emerita, still teaching a couple courses a year. Over the decades I have witnessed depression widen among students coming of age amid mass shootings, climate change, COVID isolation, and bigotry.

They are talking about what one student calls the “black cloud” that darkens their college years. They openly compare the quality of their therapists and preferred medications, and have normalized a mental health movement that was closeted in my youth.

Monitoring and speaking out on mental health issues before it’s too late is now an urgent mission among their peers, parents and educators. This is the good news, urgent news, as suicide rates soar among teens and young adults.

At my university we are ordered — yes, ordered — to immediately report any student “of concern”, who is sullen, disconnected in class, and that appears depressed. It's a policy at most high schools and colleges. A 2021 survey conducted through the Healthy Minds Network of some 33,000 American college students found that two-thirds were struggling with loneliness and isolation. And more than half of those polled were in therapy or on medication.

In my 1970s college years, we talked about “the blues” in a superficial way, over bad breakups or bad grades or bad body images. We did not drill down into discussions of soulful sadness; when we spoke of mental health it was often about deranged people who were “put away”.

I heard a lot about marijuana and nothing about Lexapro — a depression drug launched in 2002. Current students tell me they have been on antidepressants for years, and no longer go to concerts after too many shootouts at large events. They were teens when a gunman killed 58 people and injured hundreds at a 2015 country music festival in Las Vegas.

They are incredulous when I talk about the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, attended by some 400,000 on a farm in the Catskills. No one was shot and no one was frisked at the entrance to attend what was billed as “3 Days of Peace & Music".

Because of what they have seen in their short lives, today’s college students are astute and resilient — and eager to ask for help if they need it. They learn early to “run, hide and/or fight” should an intruder enter their classroom.

“Our psyches are hit hard from the state of the world,” one of my students shared after class. “It’s good that our generation is able to talk openly about our mental health issues. My grandmother had depression, and they zapped her brain with electric shock therapy. She didn’t have anyone to talk to. Now, I talk to my mom, I can talk to my siblings, my friends. I know when I need help, and I ask for it.”

Another former student called me recently to ask about potential internships, as she starts her senior year. She tries to exude hope that classes are again in person, that the “black cloud is being lifted”, and that her last year in college will be social and fun.

“Though, once I catch my breath during a period of calm, something else terrible happens,” she adds. “Wildfires, more killings, so much hate.”

I tell her that she and her peers can use their outrage to spark activism that leads to change. That it happened for me, as spelled out in this story. I was 26 in November of 1980 when six teenagers, with stockings over their faces, stopped me and a friend on a rainy night in Chicago. One young boy put a gun to my head.  They robbed us of $43, then when a passerby approached, they shot at our feet and scattered. We were unharmed physically, though having the cold barrel of a shotgun at my head changed my life. Forever.

I've tried to evoke change and I tell my students, too, to grab their power when they feel like a victim.

For most of my adulthood, I have served on boards of national organizations that work to change gun laws. Fighting for change gives me hope, My student presses me on how I can still have hope when I have lived through so much global horror. 

This is a question I used to post to my Polish mother, who survived the Holocaust as an orphan after her immediate family was incinerated in Nazi ovens. My mom would respond: “Things could always be worse.”

I parrot my mother and promise the same thing to my students, half believing what I say, as too many things are so troubling that I wonder how much worse it can get. Then I recall something else my mom would say: “If you act brave, you will feel brave.”

So, I insist with fake bravado that “things will be OK”, something our college students really need to hear, young people who tell me that just want to have a “normal life”.

I truly hope they can.

This month AARP is launching an initiative, “Our Kids in Crisis,” with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, The Ethel, The Girlfriend, Sisters From AARP, and The Arrow e-newsletters. Plus, there's a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20. For more stories, advice and insights, and to register for this important informational event, please join us at aarp.org/teensincrisis.

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