Part I: Dr. B. Hibbs “The Stressed Years of Their Lives” on how to support college students

6 min read

College counseling centers are experiencing a dramatic rise in student demand for mental health services. Parents, counseling centers, and community providers are looking for ways to support college students. We interviewed co-author, Dr. B. Janet Hibbs, on her book “The Stressed Years of Their Lives” where she dives into why students today are more stressed, how we can support them, and lessons learned when her son took a mental health leave of absence during college and worked with co-author and psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Rostain.

The Shrink Space: The Stressed Years of Their Lives offers wonderful strategies, resources and valuable insights to support college students. From your experience as a psychologist and parent whose child took a mental health leave of absence, what was your inspiration and motivation for writing this book?

Hibbs: I began writing the book as a memoir before I decided to make it a broader book. The inspiration was a way to come to terms with what I had missed and why I had missed it. Feeling that dual responsibility of being a mom and a psychologist, and wondering how could I have missed this? And feeling terribly responsible for how is anything going to get better. For so long, things were such a struggle, in terms of misdiagnoses. Thinking, I know this field and look how hard this is. And I also thought it would help married couples and co-parents understand the dynamics that often play out in a couples’ relationship because that becomes severely tested in a pretty expectable way, yet it takes people by surprise.

It was a way to come to terms with my own experiences and losses with what I hadn’t known. At one point I recognized that this was a bigger-than-a-one-person story. This was when I asked Dr. Rostain to join me in writing this book with his incredible expertise, depth of knowledge, and his career spent in this area. That’s how it became a book about all sorts of young adult developmental skills including socioemotional intelligence and readiness.  

The Shrink Space: As psychologists we are trained not to disclose too much about our personal life, yet your vulnerability in this book as a psychologist was part of what made this book so powerful. Can you talk about why you choose to share?

Hibbs: Most therapists have an ethic to not burden their clients, and yet we perhaps find the most meaning from our lives at the hardest times. Part of the goal was presenting what I learned as lessons that other people could benefit from and not feel like this was a woe is me story. Redemption of an experience that many go through but don’t talk about, for all the reasons you name, mental health stigma and shame. I don’t think I could have written this book earlier in my career as it would have felt too exposing. But you get to a point in your own life and professional life where you ask yourself could you help more than just the person in front of me.

It was truly to the students out there and my children who allowed themselves to be vulnerable. I felt that people would know that psychologists are human too and gain some courage to not feel so alone in the boat, and also to help parents not be so blaming of themselves.

The Shrink Space: In the book you discuss how when ‘social life fails, college fails’. You state a student’s unofficial goal should be to find friends early and quickly. For our students reading this, can you share more on the importance of prioritizing relationships and how to balance this with college level academics?

Hibbs: This is a based on Daniel Chambliss’s 10 year research study on the motivational factors that keep kids engaged in college, unsurprisingly it is friendships. Students hang in there because their friends hang in there. Socialization is an incredible key factor in graduation rates, students who support each other graduate together. Frequently parents say “Hey, there is too much partying going on,” and of course students have to learn good risk management skills, and in some cases there may be too much partying, but friendships are very motivational for kids. Part of what college offers is a chance to recreate yourself, you can decide how you want to show up at college. While there is often a period of initial bonding when you first arrive to college, it is important for students to know that your first semester friends may not be your second semester friends. You may need to find other groups of interest. The typical ways of connecting are through joining a group or club. That is a good thing if possible, but if it is not an automatic fit, kids need to find their niche. Transfer students may have a bit more of a challenge, so I write about tips for transfer students.

Curiously the high priced dorms (private suite, bathroom) among four kids if they click is awesome, but if not, you are more out of luck. Versus having an old-fashioned dorm where you meet half of the kids on your floor in the bathroom. Sometimes the newer dorms are more isolating, yet parents and kids can be wowed by the shiny, bright factor.

Social rejection (fear of belonging or not belonging) is a major fear as kids go off to college. One of the things we talk about in the book is the importance of knowing how to reach out, knowing your strengths in connecting, and what are different ways to bond with your peers.

The Shrink Space: Do you have any suggestions for students on how they may think about creating a healthier relationship with their phone? 

Hibbs: We offer tips on how to do screen time management. The fear of missing out and the constant comparison that social media offers can create a hollow self-identity. To the extent kids can use social media to get together or promote an event I think that’s good. 

About half of students think that social media helps them bond, and about another half think it is destructive. There is no absolute golden rule. I think part of it is about how much of your identity is tied to how many likes or followers you have on social media. It is your real time face-to-face relationships and conversations that will help you feel more connected and bonded. It is not your virtual time. As long as people balance social media it is fine. But if you find you’re using social media more than real face-to-face time then you have to manage it better.

The Shrink Space: You use the term ‘pathologic procrastination’ in the book, can you describe this more?

Hibbs: There are different forms of procrastination, some anxiety driven and some a result of executive functioning problems, where we are waiting for the perfect moment to do something and put it off so long that we actually increase our anxiety. There is one term called “procrastivity” which is feeling productive at the same time you are procrastinating, i.e. tidying up your desk to procrastinate on the thing that needs to get done.

We need to recognize our own tendencies in procrastination. Anxiety can be a good thing, as can stress, it can be motivational. But we have to recognize is my anxiety an engine that is driving me to get things done? Or is it a caboose where my procrastination prevents me from getting things done and then have a worse outcome?

Because some students are smart enough to meet the demands in high school they can procrastinate without a bad outcome. We are trying to help these students understand their tendencies in high school because they may not work well in college as the demands go up. Luckily many colleges have resources centers that help people structure their time, so we encourage students to use these support services as an extra boost to help orient themselves toward better habits.  

The Shrink Space: Not spoken about as frequently is the “well child,” the sibling that may not be well at all, but may be meeting an unrecognized emotional need to “be okay” in order to not add additional burden on their parents. Any suggestions for parents on how to remain vigilant about this possible dynamic?

Hibbs: Parents who read the book may recognize that one or more of their children has been a well child. I’d say to those parents that it is never too late to go back and ask “I was wondering what this was like for you?” just to start a conversation and acknowledge that they had an extra burden or worry about their sibling.

It is important for parents to recognize that of course you’ll be focused on your child that has a specific issue or a problem. But to the extent that you have other children at home, in a preventative way, it is important to acknowledge to the well child, “Hey I know this is going on, is there anything we can do that would be helpful to you?” Often kids are very protective of their parents and siblings and their job is to keep it under wraps if they can. Much of the book is about having conversations with your children on how to invite them to tell you what’s really going on.

Often there is a latent effect where the well child will look like they are doing fine with no problems. And then years later they pop up with a physiological or anxiety-related symptom that call attention to the fact that the well child couldn’t keep managing it.

Stay tuned for part II of the interview coming soon! Dr. Hibbs is a psychologist and family therapist in private practice for over 25 years. Co-author, Dr. Rostain is a professor who practices at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chaired the University of Pennsylvania’s task force on student psychological health and well-being. To learn more about the rising student mental health needs on campus listen to Drs. Hibbs & Rostain on their NPR Fresh Air interview.

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