Mental health

How we must shape our language to the students we work with (essay)

"I think this a real gut-check moment for you, Nathan."

His eyes immediately drop to his lap in an apparent effort to do just that, and I feel my shoulders sag. I look over at my colleague, whose eyes meet mine and then roll slightly. Damn. Nathan looks up from his gut check and eyes me quizzically. I quickly adjust.

"What I mean is that this is one of those important moments when you decide if you really want to do something that's difficult." In this case, it was giving up his habit of taking over-the-counter medication in excess. I, of course, had my own habit to give up: my tendency to use figurative language to explain a concept or suggestion or quandary in which my students find themselves.

For most of my career, I have worked with students who, for the most part, traveled with me down the road of abstraction (See? There I go again. Damn). I would sit with them and explain how texting an ex-boyfriend was like "touching a hot stove over and over," or how missing class repeatedly meant they were digging themselves a hole that got deeper by the day, or that seeing a counselor would help them box up those bad memories and stack them neatly on a closet shelf where they could be accessed without fear of being crushed. Not always the most elegant language, but it worked for me, and seemed to work for them.

These days, I find myself in the company of very different students. They live together in a residential and academic support program that was created to help high-functioning autistic students, or students with significant executive function challenges, succeed in college. We provide a level of academic and organizational support that is beyond the capacity of most colleges, and in doing so, allow these often very bright students to take, and pass, classes and ultimately get a college degree and a credential necessary for some of the careers to which they aspire.

They can do many things: solve complex math problems, explain chemistry to anyone who will listen, remember dates of significant world historical events in a manner foreign to most college students who only want to memorize what will be on an exam.

What they can't do very well is understand my metaphors. They are, most of them, literal thinkers.

"Don't throw in the towel yet!" I implore Stephen, who is thinking of quitting a club he has joined.

"What towel?" Damn.

"Don't give up yet. Don't quit. Give it a few more meetings and see if you like it better."

"Oh. O.K."

I never realized just how much I resort to visual metaphors until I couldn't use them anymore. I am like a mechanic without a wrench, a hairstylist without a comb, a ... you see, this is my problem. I don't plan these analogies and similes. It just seems to be how my brain works. I come by it naturally, as my mother was the queen of the cliché, the euphemism, the short-phrase-that-put-all-in-perspective.

"Every cloud has a silver lining." "It's always darkest before the dawn." (Yes, teenagers love hearing those responses to heartbreak). My mother knew every aphorism available to English speakers. A well-phrased maxim was her primary child-rearing tool.

Perhaps she would have diversified her portfolio if she'd given birth to an autistic son rather than a daydreaming poet of a daughter. But she didn't, and now, here I am: in a job where I am often unable to use a tool that has served me so well in my work with students, a linguistic Leatherman, one could say, that I am lost without it (I just did it again, but that was pretty subtle).

"Come on, Robert. Don't let him get your goat," I say, trying to mediate between two students unable to be civil to one another.

"My goat?" asked Robert, suddenly sure that his nemesis was stealing yet another object of his.

"Don't let him..." What? Get the better of you? That's kind of abstract.

Rattle your cage? Ruffle your feathers? Get on your nerves? I settle on, "Don't let him make you angry." The conversation then continues.

My almost-daily moments of realizing my dependence on figurative language, proverbs, metaphors and other abstract notions make me very aware of the challenges my students face in the classroom. So much of teaching involves metaphor, which someone once defined as "using something we know to explain something we don't know."

In the rich scholarship of metaphor and meaning, this is more clearly articulated as two domains. One is the "source" domain, from which we draw the metaphorical expression: "Love is a battlefield"; "Life is a carnival." The source domain is our extant knowledge of a battlefield or a carnival, of things that are concrete, physical. The other domain is the "target" domain, where the metaphor takes us (to an understanding, in these cases, of love and life), to abstract and figurative concepts.

A teacher travels between these domains constantly, and the best teachers take their students there in style. Every academic subject -- literature, physics, computer science -- relies on metaphors for explanation of complex notions. And sometimes these notions become the source domain themselves.  We refer to an organization’s core value as “being in its DNA," or a deeply held belief as being part of someone's "genetic code."

In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write of the "conceptual metaphor" and its importance in cognition. Metaphors influence not just how we think, but how we feel and act. If, for example, a group of employees is placed into two "teams" and asked to "swing for the fences" toward a goal, they may find themselves in a competitive mindset.

If instead, they are asked to work in groups to build a "house," with different "subcontractors" working toward a common goal, they may approach their work in a more collaborative fashion. A simple comment like, "Hey, we're all in the same boat here" works to inspire a group of people because they instantly, with no effort, flash to the image of themselves in a boat with their co-workers and then quickly grasp what the boss is saying:  we're in this work together. Metaphors, and our individual and collective ability to grasp them, hold great persuasive power in our learning and working environments.

So when I imagine my students in a typical classroom, with a talented professor zooming between and among metaphors, I see looks on their faces similar to the ones I've seen when I've said things like, "This is a gut-check moment," or "Give it a whirl": bewilderment followed by defeat.

When everyone in the classroom seems to get what the professor has said except you, it is hard not to be discouraged.  Coupled with the cognitive processing speed deficits that are not uncommon among high-functioning autistic students, one can see why their attrition rate is higher than their native intelligence and innate perseverance would predict.  I know I'd get frustrated if I were them.  It's very likely I would throw in the towel, or raise a white flag, even.

I find that I do recognize that bewildered expression more quickly these days, and so catch myself almost as soon as the maxim, proverb, aphorism or metaphor is out of my mouth, or I at least announce, “I’m going to make a comparison between two things” (explaining a rule or predicting an action is often very helpful to students on the autism spectrum).

I have come to recognize, too, that some of my students do not have this particular deficit, and that some of them are so quick to use a metaphor to describe something that I need a moment to catch up myself.  One afternoon, I watched as some students tossed a brand-new rugby ball belonging to one of them, Shane, in the front yard of the house we occupy. An errant toss landed the ball in the street where a truck quickly crushed it. Shane was good-naturedly bummed about his lost ball; when another staff member came outside moments later, he said to her, "Abbie, my firstborn committed suicide."

She looked alarmed, then followed his pointing finger to the street where she saw the flattened carcass of the ball on pavement. "It was my first rugby ball, and now it's gone," he said, in mock despair. "Shane," I observed, "to be accurate, it was actually more of an assisted suicide." He looked at me and for a moment, I thought I had gone one step too far with the metaphor.

"Yeah," he replied, laughing. "But that’s O.K., since that's now legal in Vermont."

As more and more students on the autism spectrum arrive in our classrooms, as accommodations allow more students with nonverbal learning disabilities to succeed enough to land on a college campus, our attention to our own language habits must increase.  A few years ago, I might have responded to that request with some resistance. This is how I talk. This is who I am.

But now, spending my days in the company of students who have to work incredibly hard to succeed in a traditional academic setting, even with the appropriate accommodations, I know the onus is on me to add another tool to my toolbox. Exercise some new muscles. Step up my game.

Or maybe just ... improve.

Lee Burdette Williams is director of student life and collegiate partnerships at Mansfield Hall, in Burlington, Vt.

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Students (and colleges) vulnerable to computer gaming addiction (essay)

Until the academic warning letter from my son’s college arrived home last December 23rd following his fall freshman term, he assured us that he was getting Bs in his classes. 

Confronted with this letter, he broke down in tears, admitted that he spent most of the last half of the semester playing an online computer game, and didn’t attend the final weeks of classes nor even sit for his exams. 

An activity that started out in high school for fun and as a coping strategy for stress had hijacked his brain, and he lost control.  He was addicted – as are nearly 2 million other U.S. college students. And if the computer game industry continues to succeed in its marketing strategy to hook youth on their products, its market success will trigger bigger avalanches of academic warning letters every December -- unless college leaders take action to address this worsening epidemic.   

For the past six years as an administrator at a large community college, I’ve focused on developing workforce education programs that have helped hundreds of at-risk students succeed in college programs.  However, as a parent of a game-addicted college student living away from home on a college campus, I felt powerless to help my son succeed in his own college launch.  As a young adult, he’s responsible for his choices, and he chose games over college success.  At the same time, the heart of addiction is a loss of control, and still-developing teenagers like my son are especially vulnerable to the instant gratification of games that can entrap them into addiction before they know what has hit them.  My hope is that our family’s story can help the higher education family grapple with this epidemic, so that other parents’ sons and daughters don’t experience the calamitous crash that my son did at college. 

Excessive Gaming Linked to Lower Academic Performance

Because computer game-playing is legal, hidden away in dorm rooms, and doesn’t result in obvious impairments like drug or alcohol addiction, the problem has stayed under the radar.  However, many studies have linked excessive computer game-playing to lower academic performance, as well as a variety of disorders often treated at campus health centers, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and social phobias. 

In one of the most authoritative studies, a longitudinal study of 3,000 third- through eighth-graders in Singapore, researchers from Iowa State University and elsewhere found 9 percent of gamers to be “pathological,” meaning that their gaming damaged multiple parts of their lives, including school performance.

Additional Resources

National Academic Advising Association Clearinghouse Article on Gaming Addiction, by Lee Kem of Murray State University

Online Gamers Anonymous, an online support community modeled after 12-step programs.

The Center for Internet Addiction, an online information resource, professional training and treatment service pioneered by Dr. Kimberly Young.

NBC Rock Center story on computer game addiction.

Just like my son, they didn’t grow out of it on their own, either.  Two years later, 84 percent of the pathological gamers in this study were still experiencing similar impacts, a finding that suggests that nearly 10 percent of first-year college students bring these pathologies to college with them.  Students who reported pathological impacts played an average of 31 hours every week.  Gaming within this subculture of students is so prevalent that my son convinced himself that 5-8 hours of daily gaming when he started college was normal.

Once these students arrive on campus, freed from the constraints of high school attendance monitors and parental oversight, students are more likely to binge on gaming, with results that can be as traumatic as my son’s.  In the 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement, completed by 27,000 first-year students, over one-third of incoming males and nearly one-fourth of females reported playing computer games more than 16 hours per week. These students had lower SAT scores and lower high school grades, and completed fewer AP courses.  So, they come to college less prepared to succeed, and are likely to fall further behind if their addiction takes root more deeply. 

An older 2003 study of college students by The Pew Internet and American Life Project confirmed this crowding out effect, with nearly half (48 percent) of college student gamers reporting that gaming keeps them from studying.  Perhaps the former Federal Communications Commissioner Deborah Taylor was ahead of her time in 2008, when she created a brief media firestorm with a speech in which she claimed that “one of the top reasons for college dropouts in the U.S. is online gaming addiction – such as World of Warcraft.”

Emulating the Tobacco Industry’s Marketing Strategy

This problem is poised to get much worse.  More and more online computer games are designed to profit by hooking addicts -- starting at a young age -- on their products, just as cigarette makers profited for decades by hooking young nicotine addicts for a lifetime. This Christmas, children being groomed by game-makers will find "Halo" and "World of Warcraft"-themed Lego sets under the tree.  At a 2010 conference, one industry executive admitted that “we have to bring them in and keep them addicted and make them keep playing.” 

After the computer game industry succeeded in getting and keeping my son addicted at college, he was hardly recognizable as the high school senior with a 3.7 GPA, 2100 SAT, and active participation as a high school athlete and trombonist in five bands.  In a 2010 magazine article, an anonymous game designer described the creepy science of addiction that designers are engineering into their products. 

Game-makers’ profits increasingly rely on addiction.  Consider the meteoric rise of the game that became an addiction as strong as crack for my son: Riot Games’ "League of Legends."  In 2009, Riot Games released "League of Legends" as one of the first free-to-play online massive multiplayer games, which require no upfront subscription payment.  They extract money from players later, after they get hooked. By the fall of 2012, Riot Games reported that "League of Legends" had 70 million registered player names and 12 million “daily active users” (likely addicts) worldwide.  The company’s business model was attractive enough to score a massive $400 million payoff for the company’s founders when they sold the company in 2011. 

Its phenomenal success has induced a Pavlovian response within the industry to design even more intense free-to-play games that seek to ensnare and addict its customers – with youth and college students directly in their crosshairs.  This prospect should motivate every dean of student services into action to warn students, starting with the first day of freshman orientation. 

Campus Strategies to Address Computer Addiction

Such warnings are rare, however.  “Given that college students are at the epicenter of America’s computer addiction epidemic, I’m shocked at how few colleges and universities are addressing this problem aggressively,” says Hilarie Cash, executive director of ReStart Internet Addiction Recovery Center, and author of Video Games and Your Kids.  One reason is that the problem of compulsive or pathological computer gaming is often hidden from college officials by addicted students. 

For example, when the dean of student services asked my son why he was withdrawing from college, he said “because of depression” – without mentioning that he had spent nearly every waking hour in the last month of the semester compulsively playing a computer game while isolated his dorm room. This kind of response is typical of many addicts, who feel a deep sense of shame about their out-of-control compulsion for gaming, and engage in elaborate self-deceptions and lies to protect their addiction and their self-image. My son thought he was the only student with this problem.

Tracy Markle, Founder of Collegiate Coaching Services, has directly observed a chilling rise in pathological computer gaming among her young adult clients.  “When we conduct our initial assessments on new male clients, 75% have some level of computer gaming and/or Internet abuse issue that contributes to the original presenting problems such as poor academic performance, difficulty concentrating, and social anxieties.”  In addition to these reported problems, Markle points to other indicators of potential gaming addiction problems with college students, such as frequent absences from classes, roommate complaints, social isolation, and calls or e-mails from concerned parents. 

Cash and Markle both encourage college and university leaders to provide in-service training to build awareness among staff – especially front-line leaders such as resident assistants, teaching assistants, and student health clinicians -- on how to recognize the warning signs of computer gaming. Colleges can also launch student awareness campaigns to warn students of these problems, and encourage affected students to seek help rather than to retreat into dangerous isolation.  If my son’s college had trained its resident advisers to recognize that holing up in your dorm room all day, not emerging for classes, ordering delivery pizzas alone every night, and turning away friends at his doorway are all signs of a potential problem, he might have been steered to get help before he crashed so completely.  Cash also encourages campus leaders to develop new campus resources, such as offering a 12-step group to address computer gaming, and building a referral network of local therapists who have experience with this unique form of addiction.

Computer game companies already have their grip on nearly 10 percent of college students.  They are coming after more of them, with more potent products.  You can’t stop them. But college and university officials can begin to address this issue by doing what we do best – education -- starting with ourselves to learn more about the growing epidemic of pathological computer gaming. Without action, we need to be prepared to mail even more academic warning letters each semester.

This essay was written by a community college administrator. Inside Higher Ed agreed to publish it anonymously to protect the privacy of the author's son.

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