I’ve spent the last eight years working as a psychotherapist at a college counseling center— listening to the pain, worries, anxieties and joys of young adults as they work to figure out who they are on their own and away from home. Now that I’m leaving to start a full-time private practice, I wanted to take a moment to think about my time in college counseling with the hope that I can crystallize something—distill some message that I can pack with my boxes of books and files and take with me.
People often ask me if I got bored in college counseling discussing what they assume are banal relationship issues and common test anxieties. In reality I’ve been privileged to work with dynamic students who each have different stories, different traumas, different defenses and resiliencies.
While each college student is unique, every day I’m left with a dull jealousy of their complete freedom and a sharp pain in response to the crushing amount of expectations and judgments they place on themselves. I want to shout, “YOU’RE ENOUGH! WHO YOU ARE IS ENOUGH! Try, study, reach out to others, create, love, laugh, but ultimately, who you are is enough and you deserve love even though you are human and flawed.” If there is one valuable lesson or piece of advice college students (and all of us) could benefit from, that is it. But I’ll offer up a few more thoughts for good measure.
1. Pot is not immoral or “bad,” but it is also not the completely benevolent drug so many people think it is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student in my office say, “I can’t concentrate, I have no motivation, my relationships are all superficial, I feel anxious all of the time…I think I’m depressed”. Then when I ask them how frequently they use alcohol and drugs, they casually mention that they smoke pot one to four times a day. Pot interferes with REM sleep, so if you consistently smoke pot before you go to bed, you’re subjecting yourself to chronic fatigue. The ironic thing about consistent pot use is that it’s often used to treat anxiety; however, the first symptom of chronic fatigue is anxiety, so it’s common for anxiety symptoms to increase with extended pot use. In addition, consistent pot use can mirror symptoms of depression and keep people from experiencing emotions necessary to engage in deep, meaningful, intimate relationships. There are plenty of people who enjoy smoking pot once a week with little or no repercussions, but the idea that pot is completely benign or not addictive is patently false.
2. Your alcohol use might be causing more problems than you realize. Most students know that if they’re binge drinking alone, missing classes, or arrested for drinking while driving, their alcohol use may be getting in the way of their goals. What many students aren’t aware of is the more subtle ways that binge drinking might be harming their relationships. Do most of your interactions with potential romantic partners begin when both of you are intoxicated? Do you have an easier time sharing your true feelings when you’re drunk? Do you crave the excitement and uncertainty that comes with being wasted? Ask yourself what you’re getting from binge drinking and think about if there are ways you can meet some of those needs when you’re sober (even if you ultimately decide not to make any changes in your drinking habits).
3. People want to help you, and you should let them. College is one of the few times in life when you have a plethora of free resources at your disposal. Now is the time to use them! Professors often spend office hours hoping that an engaged student stops by. Psychologists, librarians, tutors, study mentors, health professionals, career counselors, student affairs staff members work at colleges because they actively want to help college students, so take advantage of all of the resources you can! People often have fears about what it means to ask for help. Their families or friends taught them that asking for help is a sign of weakness. I often tell clients that if someone wanted to build a house on their own with their bare hands they could, but it wouldn’t be a particularly great house. However, if they used all of the tools available and asked for help in acquiring the skills needed to use those tools, they could build a really great house. We should all approach life in the same way—we need help, tools, skills, resources, and people to be our best selves.
4. You’re not the only one who is struggling, and letting others see your pain can be an act of kindness. Unfortunately, the phrase “no one else is dealing with this but me,” is one that I hear a lot. First year students feeling homesick and struggling to fit in are sure they are the only ones who can’t make it work at college. Students who are grieving a parent or a grandparent feel that grief is theirs alone. People who have been sexually assaulted as a child or in college believe no one else has experienced trauma. Sometimes there are weeks when four or five clients are all going through similar hardships and are all feeling so alone in their concerns. One of my biggest suggestions for college students who feel alone in their struggle is to try group therapy. Most colleges offer unlimited group therapy sessions, and group therapy can be a powerful way to intimately connect with others and feel supported in one’s own painful experiences. In addition, group therapy acts like a microcosm of the real world, and it can shine light on patterns you have in relationships which may be hindering your friendships both inside and outside of group.
5. Take responsibility. You have left home and you might have good reasons for being closed off to others – maybe you feel mistrustful, scared that others might leave or hurt you. These defenses may have protected you in the past, and it makes sense to honor them. College is a new opportunity, though, to take ownership of what you want your relationships, your family, and your life to look like. If you decide to engage in therapy, try to focus on your goals and the changes that you want to make with-in. Therapy is not about “venting,” or talking about what everyone else is doing wrong in your life. Therapy is an opportunity to think deeply about your own choices, emotions, thoughts, and relationships. The more work and thought you put into therapy, the more you’ll get out of it.