A Generation Unprepared

A few days ago, I sat with an eighteen-year-old new college freshman named Jordan* as she cried and said, “I need help.” Anxiety through the final semester of high school and summer has turned into overwhelm and depressed mood with the start of her first college semester. Maybe she’s at the wrong school, she hypothesizes. Or maybe she needs to change roommates. And then she says something that catches my attention: “Why does everyone in my family get depressed at eighteen?” 

Jordan’s three siblings each struggled with a very similar pattern of anxiety followed by depression during their eighteenth year. A couple of cousins followed the same kind of trajectory as well. She takes this as evidence for the genetics of depression, but I do not. I know that even when genetics of a disorder are a major factor, the precise age of onset for a mental health problems is going to vary. 

As we dig a little deeper into the family history (and culture) an interesting fact appears. Each child in the family became anxious not at a precise age, but at a precise stage: spring of senior year of high school. Their anxiety built through the months that led up to beginning higher education away from home, and morphed into depression by pumpkin spice season. 

The conclusion we drew about the curious pattern of depression and anxiety in her family was that it was largely unrelated to genetics. These kids were reaching the transition out of the family home, and they felt unprepared. Jordan tearfully said she felt way out of her league as a young adult. All of high school, there was talk of preparation for college, but Jordan’s readiness was lopsided. 

Academically, she was ready. Her siblings had been academically prepped, too. The kids all attended a college prep school, where they had learned to analyze Shakespeare and derive equations. But what they hadn’t learned was self-direction, motivation, or confidence. Jordan said high school and family life up until a few months ago had taught her to follow orders. She knew how to do as she was instructed, had gotten very skillful at delivering the academic product she was ordered to produce. But by the final semester of high school, instructions from teachers and parents began to slow down, and then stop. Now in college, no one is supervising her. 

She doesn’t get up for class, and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. College and adult life are loose and vague. She doesn’t know what she is supposed to be doing, because for the first time in her eighteen years, no one is overseeing. 

It begs the question: “Is this really depression at all, and how often do people like Jordan end up on prescription medications for a skill deficit?”


*Not her real name

Posted on September 12, 2016 .