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The events of the past few years have literally changed the brains of our young people, prematurely aging them in ways we used to primarily see in children suffering from violence or neglect. And while the brain is capable of healing itself, especially through treatment, it’s hard to undo trauma altogether, leaving the COVID generation with historic rates of depression, anxiety and also hopelessness.
In psychology, we define hope as the belief that you can achieve your aims coupled with the motivation to do so. It’s easy to see, then, why hope—or its absence—can deeply impact areas like academic achievement, success at work, the quality of one’s relationship and even health outcomes. What’s more, studies have shown that hopelessness perpetuates depression and anxiety—a link we desperately need to break.
There’s no quota cap on crisis, and we can safely bet this won’t be the last time young people face upheaval and uncertainty. They’ll need hope to weather whatever disruption comes next, and we can help them grasp it by teaching them to see themselves as capable agents of change.
Unfortunately, increased political partisanship and the ongoing culture wars we’ve allowed to infiltrate our educational system are pushing hope further from reach. Studies have shown that exposure to charged political events, which have become commonplace on K-12 and college campuses alike, are directly connected to experiencing negative emotions and increased stress. Just witnessing partisan politics is enough to activate a fight-or-flight nervous system response.
It’s hard to feel hopeful in a world where we (the grown-ups) can’t even agree on basic facts. Rather than being ground zero for political discord, our schools and colleges at all levels need to be places where students learn that even seemingly impossible challenges can be overcome and that different viewpoints that make us uncomfortable can help us get to a better outcome—that there is a path forward.
The good news is, our brains are malleable and can learn (or re-learn) through strategies or interventions to become more hopeful and optimistic. In fact, many strategies we already use to support overall well-being have also been shown to strengthen a hopeful mind-set. Unfortunately, well-being initiatives for students—while being widely accepted as a necessary step to ending the mental health crisis—have also become another political target, which is making it hard for schools to find middle-ground solutions.
But when we peel back the politics, there are many ways our educational institutions can help students cultivate hopefulness. At Barnard College, where I am president, we have made strides in helping students develop techniques and habits to improve well-being through the Feel Well, Do Well program, which offers ongoing training, activities and resources to help students explore ways they can care for their own mental health. Studies have shown that activities like journaling, practicing affirmations and self-compassion, or taking time to reflect on what we’re grateful for are all powerful ways to help stabilize people struggling with hopelessness or depression—and, importantly, are supports schools and colleges can deliver at scale, which will be especially important as they intake entire generations of students struggling to find hope, against the backdrop of major staffing shortages and ongoing infighting about how educational institutions should support students’ well-being.
Of course, I’m not suggesting practicing self-compassion—despite being an effective way to improve mental health—is a singular solution to the mental health crisis. As we’re thinking about how to best allocate resources, it must be understood that overcoming the levels of despair we’re seeing will require helping young people build lasting resilience and connect to a deeper sense of purpose.
The two go hand in hand. Interesting research by Duke University psychologist Sarah Gaither suggests that when we nurture multiple elements of our identity, be it our gender or racial identity or our identities as a friend, honors student, artist, athlete, member of a band and so on, it’s easier to be creative and see problems from multiple angles. In essence, it’s easier to let go of preconceived notions and approach problems more flexibly. This is essential to picking ourselves back up when faced with adversity. But during the pandemic, when extracurricular and social activities ground to a halt, young people weren’t left with many opportunities.
Participating in meaningful activities also plays a key role in strengthening our sense of purpose. Unfortunately, for years now social media has driven declines in students participating in activities that would otherwise connect them to their communities, and to each other. There’s consensus that we’re seeing a troubling weakening of civic participation and community engagement, thus perpetuating a cycle of young people feeling powerless and disconnected that started long before the COVID crisis. To foster interconnection, we need to help young people—who are already extremely committed to making change—find avenues for engaging with their communities.
One answer is through service programs like California’s College Corps, launched last year, which offers a path to helping students realize their potential as drivers of real-world impact. Helping students become their own proof point that change is possible goes a long way toward reigniting hope. The program provides up to $10,000 in scholarship funds to students at partnering California colleges who participate in 450 service hours on projects addressing challenges in areas including food insecurity, climate change and K-12 education. Programs like this also fall in line with the recommendations delivered by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, which calls for establishing a universal year of service to inspire more robust civic engagement and a greater commitment to one another.
For the past three years, we’ve learned in a tragically visceral way the despair of losing hope. But if our colleges and schools can find a way to pair education with action, to nurture young people’s resilience and to find common ground, we can do much to help them find it again.