Marcia Morris, M.D., is the author of the new book The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students. She is a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, and has worked with college students for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Psychology Today and The New York Times.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why did you gear it toward the parents of college students?
A: I started writing articles for parents about three years ago. I noticed that college students were having more issues with anxiety and depression, and I was having more contact with parents. I felt there was more of a need to educate parents.
Thirty-one percent of college students are diagnosed with a mental health issue. Parents think it’s just a passing thing when it could be serious; they may not see a warning sign. We have What to Expect When You’re Expecting—this is kind of What to Expect When Your Kid Goes to College.
Q: You mentioned an increase in anxiety and depression—what are some of the other changes you’ve seen over the years that you’ve been working with college students?
A: The other thing that’s going up is psychiatric hospitalization for college students. It’s tripled in the last 20 years. Suicidal thinking has gone up; the rates have increased in the college-age range.
The rates of suicidality have increased since 2008 when we had the Great Recession. Students are afraid—you see students with debt worrying about paying it off. The financial pressures have increased.
Also, the academic pressures have increased. When I was in college, if I got a B, that was okay. Students now are holding themselves up to such high [standards] with academics. Some students have trouble achieving a balance.
And social pressures have increased through social media. There’s a feeling you have to look perfect. Eating disorders have gone up. There’s pressure to appear popular on Facebook, but [social media interactions] are not a substitute for face-to-face contact. Face-to-face contact has gone down in the last 15 years. Social contact is a big thing; loneliness is a problem.
Q: The first issue you examine in the book is anxiety. Why did you choose to start with anxiety?
A: Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder college students experience, like panic disorder or social anxiety disorder. Students are extremely anxious. Twenty or 21 percent have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder in the past year.
In the past, depression was number one among college students. Now it’s anxiety. I wanted parents to be aware of the most common problem.
I make suggestions about treatment for anxiety, but also provide tips about not creating anxiety, not to be a tiger mom. Some people may get all As, but it’s not realistic. Encourage kids to do well, but don’t push too hard.
I talk about making sure kids are filling their lifestyle with wellness. Kids need enough sleep. They shouldn’t be studying until 3am. They’re still adolescents until 25. Sleep should not be sacrificed to academics. And they need exercise. Parents of high school and college students should encourage wellness techniques.
Q: You also look at the issue of sexual assault, a topic that has been receiving a great deal of attention lately. What advice do you offer parents on this issue?
A: It’s a tough one. I find often that patients don’t tell their parents right away. In the book there’s an incident where the student comes home and seems depressed. They might try to hide it from their parents. It’s okay for the parent to say, You seem unhappy, did anything happen?
Twenty-five percent of women experience some type of sexual assault before graduation. It may not be rape but it could be anywhere from forced touching to sexual activity. It can be very traumatic even if the woman was grabbed when she didn’t want to be.
Parents need to start asking questions. If your child doesn’t open up, you can ask if there’s another family member the child can speak to, or say to see a counselor on campus.
Parents should be aware that most campuses have a victim advocate office. The student may or may not want to press charges, but the advocate will make sure the student has the care they need.
Q: What about the issue the country is dealing with, especially right now, about violence on campus? What are you hearing from people?
A: The students are aware of what happened [with the recent school shooting in Florida], especially because I live in Florida. There are students who attended that high school. Ever since Virginia Tech, campuses are very concerned about these events. If an event is going on on campus, every student gets alerted by text.
I haven’t been asked by a lot of parents about it but living in Florida I know people are affected. I think the parents might be more distressed than some college students; they’re worrying about how to keep the kids safe.
There’s a behavioral consult team, which varies from campus to campus. They will meet on a regular basis and will gather material. With this shooting, there were a lot of pieces that weren’t put together.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m thinking at some point of writing a book directly for high school seniors. It might be more of an advice book about wellness in the college years. I’m trying to counsel students and give them hope that they will recover and feel better. The large majority will recover. People need a message of hope. A lot of young people don’t have the view to see that.
I want to continue writing about mental health issues. There’s a lack of understanding out there. And also I want to decrease the stigma. People associate it with weakness, but there are issues that are treatable. I want to get the message of hope out there.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I write about the problems that can occur in college, but one main message to parents is to be as positive as possible with their children as they go through the college years. It may be something they’re doing—[for example,] they were able to find a job for the summer. Parents can be hard on children because we think we’re helping them but it’s important to highlight the positive.
They are all going to have something come up. I hear from students that they don’t want to tell their parents because they don’t want to upset them. Parents need to stay calm and not get upset when their children are telling them something. I want parents to have a positive relationship with their children.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb