Making the transition from high school to university or college is a milestone for any teen – as well as their parents. For kids who find themselves away from home for the first time, that change can be dramatic and stressful.
That stress can lead to bigger mental health challenges, says Dr. Stan Kutcher, of the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
A pioneer in the field, Dr. Kutcher has been studying teen mental health since the ’80s when he was a resident in psychiatric medicine at University of Toronto. He has seen many changes in the mental health of teens over the decades.
“The prevalence of mental disorders such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety has not really changed. But the threshold for diagnosis, in some areas, has,” he says. This “diagnostic creep” creates an impression that teen mental health disorders are on the rise because more teens are seeking access to care. This in itself is not a bad thing, but the problem is that teens may be getting professional help from mental health services for things that would not have caused a crisis in the life of an adolescent decades ago.
Dr. Kutcher said that’s because many teens are not equipped to handle stress. Therefore typical events such as exam stress, a relationship break-up or grief become harder to handle.
Much of this can be blamed on the way society as a whole views stress or worry, says Dr. Kutcher. “There is a feeling that a negative emotional state always causes problems for people. The perception is that the individual awareness of the stress response is bad. But normal, everyday stress is not all bad. What’s more, when a person seeks out ways to adapt to the stress, then that adaptation extinguishes the stress signal; it builds resilience.”
Dr. Kutcher explains that scientists have known since the ’50s that low and high levels of stress lead to poor performance, but that a medium stress level is the sweet spot, leading to optimal performance. Our bodies respond by releasing cortisol to help us handle different challenges. This dates back to prehistoric times when human beings were facing serious dangers from the environment. When we handle the situation, the body then releases a different hormone, oxytocin, which makes us feel good. Facing your stressors – building competency and adding skills – helps you adapt and decrease the stress signal.
The problem is, according to Dr. Kutcher, that too many young people never have the chance to actually deal with negative emotional situations. Parents are too quick to solve their kids’ problems, he says, and that robs them of the chance to develop resilience, and over time, the body becomes stressed more easily. “The purpose of the stress signal is to help us create adaptive competencies. So when a teen feels worried or anxious, the goal should be to figure out a way to solve the problem.”
Dr. Kutcher notes that common relaxation techniques such as exercise and meditation are good ways to destress, but on their own, they only reduce the stress signal. “You need to develop adaptive competencies at the same time.” So when exams become overwhelming, for example, good advice would be to figure out a study schedule, find a study group and access academic support. “Then the next time the students feels exam stress, they’ll know how to deal with it.”
To that end, Dr. Kutcher and his team created Transitions, a book, website and mobile app to help teens and their parents as teens go off to post-secondary school. (The other pivotal time for changes is when young people leave school for work, but it is harder to reach them as a group.) The book covers everything young people need to know, from budgeting and studying to dating and living with roommates.
“We’re getting really good feedback from kids and educators,” says Dr. Kutcher. “We’re now in the process of getting it to Grade 12 students in the province and discussing how to disseminate to all students.” It's not a frontline resource for kids in crisis, stresses Dr. Kutcher, but rather, a place to answer questions before that need arises.
Transitions was funded in part by Sun Life Financial and created by Dr. Stan Kutcher and his team at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
Through the support of Fred and Elizabeth Fountain, 6,000 copies were distributed to first-year students across five Nova Scotia post-secondary institutes. The information is presented in a friendly, easy-to-understand voice. Here are just a few Transitions tips for becoming a resilient student:
To view Transitions as a PDF, or to purchase the app for 99 cents, go to TeenMentalHealth.org/Transitions.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2014.