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College drinking culture should warrant more parental awareness for psychological issues

Milam's Musings, milambc@miamioh.edu

If a drunk student's head bounces off of the brick street, and everyone around is drunk, does anyone remember?

My ride-along with MUPD, seeing student after student blacked out on the sidewalk or at McCullough-Hyde, had a profound effect on me.

As a commuter student to Miami, I hadn't seen the seedier side of campus life up close until that ride-along.

As I mentioned in the column I did about the ride-along, I'm not casting stones here. I've done my fair share of drinking and partying with a close group of friends, although I like to think I was more cognizant of my limits than the students I witnessed.

I'm not here to spill my ink preaching against responsible drinking. Rather, my concern is more with the underlying causes of drinking, i.e., the culture that simultaneously encourages and ignores it and the causes that can give rise to it, like drinking to self-medicate.

As the former crime reporter, I was privy to the MUPD incident reports, replete with myriad records of students experiencing a "psychological emergency."

A psychological emergency is classified as such when "someone makes threatening comments of self-harm, as well as other incidents of mental health issues of depression, stress, etc."

So I know there are people suffering -- and most likely silently -- on campus, and I hope in reading this they realize that I know their pain and that there are people willing and ready to help (see the end of this column for a list of resources).

Often these types of psychological emergencies were precipitated by drinking.

At Miami in particular, a lot of ink is used to discuss the drinking culture and these psychological emergencies of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

However, one of the most baffling aspects of such discussions are the parents who chime in with a head-in-the-sand approach to this issue.

As in, these parents who brush aside any concern about binge drinking and its underlying causes with toxic notions like, "That's what young people do. It's the college experience, after all."

I just finished Sue Klebold's, "A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy," and it helped to illuminate why such a parental approach, especially in the context of college, is short-sighted.

Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters, along with Eric Harris, in the 1999 Columbine school shooting, who killed 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 others.

Then, both shooters committed suicide.

Klebold spends much of the book trying to understand how her son not only committed such unspeakable harm upon others, but also himself via suicide.

But there are two takeaways I had from the book with larger implications beyond the Columbine tragedy.

First, that there is an inherent chasm in the parent-child relationship, wherein the parent can never truly know what's going on in their child's head.

This is the singular tragedy conveyed in "A Mother's Reckoning." Trained professionals and parents are no better able to detect deceit in children than the mere chance from flipping a coin (see: Dr. Adrian Raine's book, "Anatomy of Violence").

Second, brain health and brain illness needs to be taken more seriously, given how prevalent suicide is in the United States. For instance, the second leading cause of death in youth between the ages of 15-24 is suicide, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

A brain health checkup should be as routine and normalized as a physical checkup.

We know it as prima facie, but also with evidence, that parents are incapable, to a large extent, of truly knowing what's going on in their child's mind, if the child is concealing it.

We also ought to know the context with which the aforementioned is placed at Miami or any university in the country: a 17 or 18-year old kid away from home for the first time in a town designed for drinking and encouraged to drink by a this-is-the-college-experience culture.

So, why would parents be so blase about this?

I can tell you from my own experience that my parents have no idea what's going on in my head unless I tell them, and I often don't tell them.

The fact that people, including parents, aren't mind-readers seems obvious, but, like Sue with her son, parents have a belief that if something is wrong with their child, they would just intuit it.

And sure, NAMI tells parents to notice the warning signs: prolonged sadness (more than two weeks), severe mood swings, changes in behavior and yes, repeat use of drugs or alcohol, among other indicators.

Yet, as the singular tragedy in Klebold's book reminds us: discerning these warning signs from so-called "typical" adolescent, youthful behavior is devastatingly difficult.

Parents need to at least be cognizant of the true college reality and of these brain illnesses and be more active and proactive, if possible.

I have no more prescriptions for a solution than to implore better awareness.

Moreover, to my fellow students and readers, if there's anything you ever take away from these musings, make it this: if you're suffering through college, seek help early.

I made the same mistake Sue did when she developed severe anxiety and PTSD after Columbine: thinking I could "think" my way through a brain illness.

Most of the seven years I've been at Miami, I've spent it trying to "think" my way through issues of depression and anxiety while simultaneously carrying the load of school and work.

When you add in the act of concealing it from others, it's an exhausting endeavor.

I also began to notice when my own drinking seemed to turn into self-medication. And yes, there were times I had suicide ideation, but nobody in my life sphere was any the wiser.

How many students on campus are dealing with these issues in the same way and doing so within a climate where binge drinking is seen by parents, fellow students and alumni as what young people do?

Combing that toxic thought with the ignorance and stigma around brain illnesses is a clear, continued and present recipe for disaster.

Student death due to the confluence of reckless binge drinking and brain illnesses doesn't have to seem so intractable a problem, even though it can.

It just takes real, honest discussions and not chalking all of this up to "that is what happens at college."

Resources:

An initial consultation at Students Counseling Services is free and the next three sessions are funded by general student fees. Anything above four is only $25 for each session. Check out Student Counseling Services for more information.

For additional resources:

Miami University Psychology Clinic: (513) 529-2423

Women Helping Women/ 24 hr Rape Crisis: 1-877-889-5610

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line: Text "hello" to 741-741

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