College Counselors Deny Students have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Have Social Reasons to be Anxious

KZFR radio transcript,Gayle Kimball’s interview with Dr. Juni Banerjee Stevens and Mr. Chris Sims, October 13, 2016

Q: Are today’s college students fragile tea cups, over protected by helicopter parents, anxious and depressed?

  1. 1988 when I started graduate school, depression, what’s the meaning of life, what’s my purpose? why am I in college? It’s steadily shifted to anxiety being the top presenting concern. Counseling Center Directors across the country are scratching their heads, what is this? It’s multifaceted. In the last 20 years shift from normal developmental suffering, storm and stress of adolescent has progressed to this culture of fear. When I heard anxiety we ask students what are you afraid of? Anxiety means fear. A distinct change after 9-11. As a culture we’ve become more fearful since 9-11. This has certainly impacted about how people parent. I’m defensive about helicoptering because parents are trying to do their best for their children. Helicoptering has backfired in that we’re more afraid than ever to let our children fail and give them a safe place for that to happen.
  2. I’ve been confronted with heroic stories from clients and it’s not easy, the pressures they face would make anybody anxious. Any thoughts that I had about the mythological fragile college students have been dispelled by my work with them. The patterns I recognize are a sense of responsibility that’s over and above their real responsibility to themselves and to their parents, to try to achieve for their parents their professional goals. And a lack of self-care, lack of recognizing how much pressure they’re under and how much care for themselves to keep up the pace.
  3. What resonates with students is what’s behind or underneath that sense of self-worth. There are external factors that help us understand who we are. Do well on a test. Car gets broken into. Don’t do well on test. Break up with partner. We all have ups and downs but self-worth doesn’t rock the sense of self-worth. They’re blown away the first time they get the message that if they don’t get a 6-figure job out of college, I’m a failure. They’re getting that message from day one, I know I did. It’s about being compassionate and realistic. I’m for exercise and meditation to manage biology, but how can I tweak some of their beliefs? After 9-1 shift from meaning of life questions I’m stressed out about my financial aid check not coming in because my parents need it to pay their mortgage, because my dad lost his job. These things they’re worrying about are legitimate.
  4. 65% female clients, 53% students. Chris: a sense of competition, distortion about what human life is supposed to be about, such as a 6-figure job. Once the anxious process starts it’s very isolating. They think they’re suffering something unique because there’s a lack of authenticity about what it means to be a human.
  5. They’ve been given too high expectations. Everything I learned in grad school was about how to help individual shift their beliefs. I’m blaming the environment. I’m being groomed and asked to helicopter my kids, check on their grades, how’s how to prep them for college in 6th grade. When I was in 6th grade, playing with dolls and friends. An environmental shift, a Culture of scarcity is the paradigm that I’d like to see shift. Sense that’s something that’s missing from my life, competition, comparing themselves. Social media can be used to communicate, a powerful positive tool, but it’s another way to compare yourself to the Jones. Not a new thing, just faster and easier now. Students talk about FOMO, fear of missing out from a party. I have FOMO. It’s the same issues that counselors that s have dealt with, but we’re not normalizing that struggle, not emphasizing resilience bounce back from the struggle.
  6. Narcissistic to call someone else. Who is defining narcissism? Healthy narcissism, self-worth, I’m worthy of taking care of self, my voice getting out there. Pathology is like a bell curve with base rates, there’s always going to an element of narcissism that’s outside the norm, a disorder, I haven’t seen evidence of that disorder.
  7. Chris: I agree. I talk with clients about appropriate self-centeredness, hooked into to what parents, friends, professors expect. Need to consider their own needs.
  8. June: heart of a lot o those pathologies is a lack of empathy. Yes, we have some students who can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes, but if you wipe away one layer, there’s a sense of abandonment, emptiness, don’t feel there a there there, don’t have a sense of identity to told onto. Being entitled is often a story of my needs didn’t get met, I didn’t learn how to ask for what I need. What’s hard is a student who is more dependent and more depressed, pulling compassion from us, has the same underlying sense of abandonment and insecurity, our social structure says its to feel sorry for them, but someone who

is more aggressive is not deserving of our compassion.

Chris, none of my clients are narcissistic. If that’s the case, then what? Not treat them? If they are fragile teacups, if that’s true are we supposed to beat up our kids a little it more? There’s a reduction in stigma, people are more able more willing to get treatment, share they’re hurting. I think it’s a credit to our mental health system. I see a lot of men. Yes, they report it’s hard to share their feelings. Once they take that leap, it’s a cool process to go through, this thing he was ashamed of, and realizes he can be friends with that part he was ashamed of, it’s a sacred thing, a joy.

Juni: One of my professors said personality doesn’t stabilize until you’re about 30, so I’m reticent to characterize them with a disorder. It’s normal to experiment with different personality types. I am concerned if someone is gloried for having those kinds of characteristics. There’s a little more permission to be more vocal about opinions that might be hurtful to people. That’s real but I don’t know if that’s different from past generations. I’m very cautious and defensive about slapping labels on a group of people who are in a state of flux.

We work with stigma about drugs, like insulin for diabetes. Therapy and meds are about equally effective; you get the biggest bang for your buck if you can do both at the same time. The meds give people the energy to do the work of therapy. With bi-polar, some of those medications can help people function, change their lives for the better, I’ve seen some amazing things happen. Chris: meds are the reason some people are in college.

Juni: [What about lack of time with parents? Ignored in some ways?] You just described my life. You have to look at the big picture. If I could work 8 hours less a week, if I could get home to make dinner before 6:30, our family would be doing better. Julie Haines How to Raise an Adult talks about is this for our children’s benefit that we’re asking about homework, sports, volunteer work, is it about the kid or about the parent, feel noble feeling involved in my children’s lives, feel I’m worth more if my child gets into a good college.

Chris: some of them are really eager to please their parents, going to college for them, letting my parents down if I don’t do well. First generation students, it’s a whole community’s dream. We’ve bought into a lie that we’re not OK as we are.

Chris: Some of the students are really eager to please their parents, everyone who worries about failing in a class, worries about their parents’ down. Especially 1st generation students are achieving a whole community’s dream.

Juni: too simplistic to say they’re fragile.

They need more resources on campus as more students ask for mental health services; every director will tell you they need more staff. They’re Asking for a different type of counseling that’s more organic, secret talk in a room with a closed door, more comfortable talking with their peers. We’re so impacted; my staff can’t do the more informal work. A lot of centers are trying to do that. We have people in crisis


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