After listening to Michael elaborate on his painful year in 2014—which included spending time in rehab for alcohol, losing a job, fighting with three girlfriends, and incurring deeper debt for college—he looked at me and mused, “Life is hard.”
He’s right, you know, and for tens of millions of young adults from Generation iY (those born since 1990), they’re struggling to navigate it on their own. Most don’t. Gina was forced to quit school after getting a DUI, receiving a huge fine, and getting tossed out of her sorority. She’s now at home… again. All dressed up and nowhere to go. The problem is not merely financial, intellectual, or even social. Psychologists who specialize in treating adolescents and young adults tell us the core of the problem—the factor that leads to all other kinds of challenges—is emotional.
Studies show that 27% of college-age kids experience some type of mental health problem. The issues we hear most about are anxiety disorder, eating disorders and depression. Parents and students should know that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students, and the main reason is untreated depression. “Emotional issues that were absent, controlled, or hidden in high school may start to cause problems in this new environment,” says Guy Napolitana, MD, chairman at the Lahey Clinic at Tufts University School of Medicine.
Six Steps to Good Emotional Hygiene
Certainly not every student can avoid emotional illness—but the steps below are important ones we can help them take to have better emotional health in their lives. Psychologist Guy Winch, PhD, reminds us that we all understand dental hygiene, which includes brushing our teeth and flossing. Sadly, few of us practice emotional hygiene, which is far more important in the long run. Here is a starting point below:
- Help them clarify their identity and affirm their self-esteem.
I realize it sounds like a cliché solution to a middle school problem, but at the root of so many adolescent issues are identity and self-esteem. As you meet with a high school or college student, help them draw their sense of identity from ingredients that cannot be taken away, such as family, personality, natural gifts, or faith. When a student draws their self-esteem from popularity among peers, belonging to a fraternity, or their drinking buddies… they can’t protect it. Their sense of wellbeing is out of their own control. Help them to verbally affirm who they really are.
- Teach them to pay attention to emotional pain.
I endured shoulder pain for weeks until I finally visited an orthopedic doctor for treatment. My prescription was to practice some rehab exercises to strengthen my rotator cuff. In the same way, we must emotional pain that’s lingered for days or weeks. If a student appears depressed over a period of time, it likely won’t just go away. We must help them pay attention to inward pain and to put their finger on why it’s there. Just like physical pain, they’ll need a diagnosis and a prescription. Help them stay on top of it.
- Convince them to focus on their strengths.
Some people debate this point, but I believe it’s important for emotional hygiene to focus on our natural, God-given strengths. Author Marcus Buckingham reminds us that our greatest growth, satisfaction and confidence occurs when we spend the majority of our time in an arena where we can practice our strengths. For students, this may mean you sit down with them to help them identify their strengths. Then, encourage them to find classes, mentors and places where they can focus on those strengths. This is a natural “health booster.”
- Equip them to manage stress.
Often, stressful situations launch unhealthy patterns of behavior. For example, if we fail, it often leads to lack of confidence and helplessness, which only leads to more failure. Students may try to compensate artificially with coping mechanisms like binge-drinking, over-eating, shopping, or other addictive behaviors. We must equip students to stare stress in the eye—and develop a plan to manage it. Stress does not have to become distress. We all have it; few manage it well. Seeing a solution to a stressful problem, like falling behind in class, can enable them to stay healthy.
- Encourage them to avoid those who wound them psychologically.
It’s been said for years: we become like those with whom we spend the most time. Often, students choose poor friends just to feel better about themselves. They become the hero or the rescuer. In the process, however, they often get dragged down emotionally. Spending lots of time with unhealthy companions feels good in the moment, but frequently leads to psychological or even spiritual wounds. Health stems from good input, including great books, friends and experiences. Encourage them to seek positive relationships.
- Enable them to start new, healthy habits.
Good emotional hygiene always includes healthy habits and attitudes. This year, part of the answer to poor health may be launching new habits. In fact, I believe old habits won’t go away until they are replaced with new ones. Ask if you can hold a student accountable to start a new habit (such as outside reading, community service, a hobby, meeting with mentors, etc.) and help them stick to it for at least 21 days (the time it takes a new habit to become “muscle memory”). Growth is a natural sign of health.
Good leadership always begins with healthy people who practice emotional hygiene. What steps would you add to this list?