University ambition: unstable hopes and dreams
It is A-level result week. Much has been invested in the outcome. Many teenagers will get the grades they have been aiming for, and their parents will face the paradox of both getting what they desired for their children - educational success with its accompanying university place alongside the thing they quietly dread - their child leaving home. For many families and perhaps particularly for Christian middle-class families schooling has been pushing in this direction for years. University has been the end goal, the culmination of a ‘successful’ upbringing and now these would be students are confirmed in the belief that the world is their oyster with endless possibilities. It is not. University is only another stepping stone, a possible hoop to jump through on the way to something else, and it is fraught with potential hazards. University for some young people turns out not to be the promised utopia but a spiral downwards into loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
Maybe it has always been like this, but the reports of mental health difficulties amongst students are rising year on year. I know many young people full of potential who thrived in their schools, achieved across the curriculum, were outstanding in their extra curricula fields of sport and music which when they hit university crashed. They were not expected to collapse. They had everything going for them. They had stable families, good friends. They had faith. University became the place where they hit a wall, and everything began to melt away.
Our schools have pushed them to succeed. Our culture tells them they can be whatever they want to be. Our churches tell them that they will be completely fulfilled in Christ and our Christian community will provide all their relationship needs. Instead, they are faced with their limitations. They become more aware of their inadequacies. They experience an unfamiliar emptiness and loneliness that is deeper than anything they have ever known. They learn to put on a mask to fit in with people who are doing things which deep down they despise. The need to belong is strong. It is safer not to express their thoughts. Pressure, anxiety and aching loneliness become their daily backdrop. This is where the dreams of our education system have taken them.
There is increasing acknowledgment that we need to help our kids develop resilience. This resilience starts with us correcting the lie we have brought our kids up to believe. University is not the be all and end all. It is a chance to learn - that’s all it is. It is a place to learn more and gain skills for some, but it is not for everyone. Living with peers brings frustrations. Some make friends for life; others won’t. Not everyone thrives in a crowd. Some find their need for space and solitude thwarted in the relentless sociability of their companions. Others see no one with whom they can ever relax and be themselves. Some experience days and days of isolation. Others enter a relentless schedule of societies and activities and give themselves no moment to breathe, to absorb, to grow until the intensity of it all burns into a flicker of exhaustion.
How should parents and students prepare for the whirlwind of university life? The same way we lay the groundwork for all life. University is not the pinnacle of achievement. It is merely a place in which many live and work. Get it in perspective. Have a read of Ecclesiastes and put wisdom in its right place and life in its proper context.
Is there a way to be immunised from experiencing a mental health crisis at university? No. The intensity of the experience will trigger mental health problems for some. This too is life. I have been very close to students experiencing them - tough times.
Students do not be ashamed to seek help or to withdraw from a course. Get help early. Talk about what is happening to you to someone you can trust.
Parents be aware and be supportive. Give your child space but be vigilant. Keep lines of communication open while also letting go. Don’t add to the pressure. Give your child permission to get help. Help your child get help. There are far worse things than dropping out of university.
Churches be aware and supportive. Church families love the students who come to you as your own sons and daughters, don’t just think of them as only people to ‘stretch and train’ or to encourage to serve. Do not give up on those who are on the edge of things. Do not make assumptions about those who seem to be thriving. Be hospitable not just program led. You won’t be able to fulfil all their needs - you are flawed. Don’t promise them things that aren’t true and you cannot give. Christ is the one who offers life to the full, but the suffering free life will not be known until eternity.
What we all need parents, students and churches is a deep of knowledge of Christ and eternity to keep us grounded through whatever this next academic year throws at us.