John Lee, a 22-year-old second-generation Korean American, plays a video game in his room in Alexandria, Va. Lee said many of his Korean-American friends chafe under the pressure their parents place on them to get into top-tier colleges and become doctors or lawyers.
Suicide, sex part of college experience
Before sending their kids off to college, isle parents should be aware of the dangers
» FIRST | SECOND OF TWO PARTS
In last week's column, we saw that college can be a particularly stressful experience for many young people -- it is not a carefree oasis, free from the anxieties of the outside world. We looked at alcohol abuse. This article concerns mental health problems and casual sex.
IN RECENT YEARS, there has been a sharp increase in the number of students seeking psychological counseling. Counseling has gone from "crisis" to a routine part of college life. Indeed, so many students are being exposed to counseling, I detect a sharp increase in counseling as a career choice. The statistics are alarming:
» Nationwide, a 2004 study reported that one-third of students reported symptoms of serious mental illness.
» At Middlebury College -- an institution that is, perhaps, not unlike many small schools -- staff estimated that from 33 percent to 40 percent of students received counseling during the last academic year; nationwide, 9 percent of college students sought counseling in 2006.
» Suicide is the second-leading killer of college-age students, averaging roughly 1,100 deaths in recent years. Studies show that 10 percent consider ending their lives, while about 1.5 percent attempt the act each year.
» Depression appears to be the leading reason for seeking counseling. In 2004, the percentage of students counseled for depression reached 14.9 percent, the College Mental Health Association said. One study noted that 45.1 percent of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, and 15 percent met the criteria for clinical depression.
The rise in mental illness may be caused by one of, or a mix of, the following: the stress of college; parental and peer pressure; alcohol and drug use; and the age of terrorism. Of particular concern for people from Hawaii, Asian-American women ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women of any race or ethnic group in that age range. This is often attributed to "model minority pressure" -- the pressure that some Asian Americans put on their children to excel in school and later in their careers, and the fact that Asian-American parents tend to more strict with girls than boys.
Whatever the reasons, more students with mental health problems are heading for college because they are now on anti-depressants. What to do?
First, consider whether it's wise to send your mentally troubled child to college, with or without medication. A roommate is not likely to have counseling skills, and the student might not take advantage of professional counseling services. Once again, the college won't tell you whether or not he or she needs help, or whether or not that help involves suicide prevention. It would be wise to obtain your child's permission for the school to share health information with you.
Second, you should check the college's staff and facilities for dealing with mental problems. Many schools offer one counselor for every 1,000 students. According to a recent news report, the ratio at the University of Hawaii is a poor one-to-5,000 kids, but generally speaking, large public universities and wealthy private colleges offer the most comprehensive mental health services. Sending a troubled youngster to a small school -- especially one that is far from Hawaii -- might be asking for trouble. Also, check whether there is a limit on the number of free counseling sessions.
Last, and perhaps most important, develop a close relationship with your child. Listen carefully to problems -- homesickness, depression, eating disorders, whatever -- and stay in close contact.
Having sex, like getting drunk, is now accepted as another college "rite of passage." Over the years, because of the Pill, the chances of pregnancy have been greatly reduced. But the pill has led to another problem: unprotected sex, which has its own consequences. One study showed that each year roughly 400,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 have unprotected sex, and among the college and noncollege teenage population, about one in four sexually active teens will get a sexually transmitted disease.
I feel that co-ed dorms are largely to blame for dramatic increases in campus sexual activity. "Co-ed by floor" has been largely replaced by "co-ed on each floor." My daughter at Williams even shared the floor bathroom (with showers) with male residents. When I attended college, a girl in a guy's room -- even for an hour -- would be enough to get him expelled. The Virginia Tech shooter had no problems entering a co-ed dorm. If that had been an all-girls' dorm, he would have been met with screams! Nowadays, school administrators tend to look the other way when kids of the opposite sex move in with each other.
Students tend to defend the mixed-sexes living arrangement, with girls telling their folks that the guys are "protective buddies." But statistics tell a different story. Ninety percent of rapes are acquaintance rapes, almost all of which go unreported, and 90 percent of on-campus rapes occur in residence halls, with 60 percent occurring in the victim's room.
Remember, too, that much of the drinking scene takes place in dorms. It is much more likely that your daughter will be raped by some drunk down the hall than by someone jumping out from behind a bush.
Colleges do little to help the problem by building more co-ed dorms, with many now offering full-size or double beds and experimenting with allowing students of different sexes to be roommates. What to do?
Check out whether the college offers single-sex dorms. Opportunities for socialization might be diminished, but opportunities for study (and graduation) might be increased. Also, check to see what the dorm security situation is. How easy is it for outsiders to get inside? And tell your daughter that you are paying for a room for two -- not for three.
DEMAND QUALITY, SAFETY
If you have a child in college or heading for college in a few years, you're going to be paying a fortune. And that will pale by comparison with what parents with toddlers will be shelling out 15 years from now, estimated to reach $40,000 a year for a public school and a whopping $103,000 a year for a private school!
So, you have the right to expect fair value. Because of the challenges of the mainland and because of the size of the investment, Hawaii parents -- especially -- should demand that their kid receive a quality education in a safe environment.
If you don't like the idea of co-ed dorms, insist on single-sex dorms. If you're worried about alcohol abuse, don't send Junior to a party school. If your child is troubled and needs special physical or mental care, don't choose a mainland school. And if you do, insist on his or her signing a paper that will allow the college to inform you if there are problems. Warn your child not to be too trusting, especially in the first few weeks of the freshman year when he -- or especially she -- might be inundated by a flood of free booze. Getting a first-year girl drunk is a favorite upper-classmen activity.
For parents with children who will be freshmen this fall, this summer will be particularly stressful. I would suggest reading my "Hell Summer" article (Star-Bulletin, June 13, 2004). You'll know what to expect -- and how to prepare for it.
College is a time of tremendous opportunity to learn things "for the fun of it," to prepare for a career, to participate in a wide range of activities and to form lifelong friendships. But it also is a time of enormous physical and mental challenges. How you, as parents, handle these challenges will go a long way toward ensuring that college will be an enjoyable, worthwhile experience for your child -- and you.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
This is the sixth in a series of occasional articles about college for Hawaii students by C. Richard Fassler. Previous articles published in the Star-Bulletin were:
» Nov. 30, 2003: Choosing a college
» June 13, 2004: Hell Summer: The transition from high school to college
» Nov. 14, 2004: Whether to attend college on the mainland or stay home
» Feb. 20, 2005: The great scholarship hunt is on for Hawaii students.
» Aug. 21, 2005: Calming the pre-college jitters
» May 27, 2007 What really goes on when your child goes off to college
» June 3, 2007 Suicide, sex part of college experience
See these articles online at starbulletin.com