“More counseling needed on college campuses” proclaims a recent Time Magazine piece. “Depression at record levels.” Academic pressure is cited as a cause of the overwhelming burden on scarce resources.
A student is depicted. Her schedule includes premed courses, collegiate soccer, and a full social life. The article does not specifically mention the curriculum so I will note that in order to have a shot at a successful application to medical school, she must excel in calculus, physics, biology, chemistry, and organic chemistry. I am exhausted just writing down the course names. And did I mention that she needs two semesters of each? And that any grade other than an A in any of the classes does not necessarily preclude her from consideration, but it doesn’t do her any good either. Organic chemistry? What is that even about? Carbon? That any number of my relatives are indeed carbon-based life forms is probably not enough information to get me through the first semester, never mind the second.
The kid is depressed because she is overwhelmed and overworked? Maybe. Here is a possible rival hypotheses: Maybe she just has an inflated sense of her abilities. Her parents have brutalized her with “you can do anything;” and “you’re the best.” Perhaps to the contrary, she can do ALMOST anything and is actually SECOND best. Maybe, for want of a more exact appraisal, she is a 93rd percentile kid. Successful medical school applicants may be 97th percentile kids. With her commitment to soccer, perhaps our sympathetic protagonist is motivated and able to study four hours a day. The kids who are a little bit smarter are studying five hours a day. Of course she needs counseling. I too am depressed just thinking about all that time spent studying organic chemistry.
Having introduced myself into the previous paragraph, I will say something else about me: after winning the Boston Marathon, I would like to sit in a hot tub sipping designer lemonade discussing my upcoming Nobel Prize acceptance speech with Sophia Vergara. Watch this space for details of when those events come to pass.
Indeed, were this 61-year-old, punching, balding author to attempt to keep up with the leaders from Hopkinton, he would doubtless be unhappy—possibly even anxious and depressed—as his legs caught fire and his lungs exploded. No amount of “access [to] breathing exercises,” or “listen[ing] to a playlist designed to cheer [me] up” would make a positive impact as I was wheeled into an ambulance.
Not everyone gets to win the Boston Marathon. Not everyone gets to attend medical school. Parents make a tremendous mistake endlessly encouraging their children to accomplish that of which their children are just not capable.
I see this paradigm repeatedly in my professional practice. “He is so smart,” parents lament. “He could do the work but he refuses or he’s depressed or he just needs more support.” No, actually he cannot. It is not the case that he can’t do the work because he’s depressed. The reality is that he’s depressed because he can’t do the work.
No one is more in favor of therapeutic support than this author. But I have another suggestion. Lower your expectations. We need content nurses. We need happy physician’s assistants. We need self-actualized physical therapists. “Organic chemistry makes more history majors than it does doctors.” Good. There is a place for cheerful history majors also.
I hope the student mentioned in the article benefits from counseling. I wish there were services available for all students in need. But a meaningful step in helping her achieve a life with a healthy balance is to change her goals. This student could be a star in any number of other academic disciplines. By focusing only on medicine, she sets herself up for disappointment, anxiety, stress, and depression.