We're Losing Our Kids

 Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

The suicide of a college student.  The disappearance of another from a busy street.  Both in my local community.  Both within the past three weeks.  One remains an active effort with the hope for a positive resolution.  The other no longer does.

A young man I know well called just prior to Thanksgiving, telling me that the roommate of a friend had just committed suicide.  On campus and in their shared room.  A college student approaching the finish line toward graduation with a full life yet to be lived.  His friend needed short-term housing until alternate living arrangements could be made.  I heard the pressing need, yet the only thing that registered was that another promising young adult was in so much pain that ending it all seemed to be the only way out.

The raised voices about removing the stigmas and providing better access to mental health care are being heard.  Identifying young people who are struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues is critically important, but that’s only one side of the coin.  There's another side, one that requires us to dig deep, that's as important if not moreso.

Like flipping a light switch, children cross a “magical threshold” into the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood when they turn 18.  Never mind that a child's brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25.  The welcome mat is thrown down and we hope for the best.

So what happens.  They find themselves navigating classes, working to maintain their grades, handling their self-care and finances, dealing with roommate and peer issues, figuring out new environments and expectations…a host of demands that would tax even the most prepared young adult.  Yet many are simply ill-prepared and not ready despite what the law says.

Along with reaching this passage to adulthood comes the accompanying challenges and obstacles that prevent and preclude friends, professors, and others from being able to step in when a student is in crisis.  And this doesn’t even touch on the "red tape" issues facing parents who are trying to get their children the help they so desperately need.  And often times from afar.

College is a “hot topic” today – in fact, I just blogged about it.  The cost of attendance, whether college is worth the investment of time and money, and the safety of students ... all important issues. Yet attention to the fact that the lives of many of these young adults are balancing on a tightrope because they are unable to handle the pressures seems to be missing in these discussions.  They're slipping and some of these cracks in their new-found adult lives are swallowing them whole.  And forever.

There is shared grief here … this student’s friends who knew there were issues yet did not know what to do or where to turn.  This student’s parents who may have been unaware of the extent of their child’s difficulties or had been unsuccessfully trying to secure help.  And the grief that we all need to share because of the lack of safety nets for our 18 - 21-year-old children who are dealing with depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol issues, and other issues that are pushing them to despair.

I’m a parent too.  Of a young adult who has also experienced difficulties.  I know the fights involved and the “systems” that work against parents in the quest of their lives.  Few things cut through a person’s existence like feeling helpless … like knowing someone is struggling yet being told that information cannot be shared … like knowing that the line between having another day to fight and the last day can be hair thin.

My heart goes out to this student.  No child -- and yes, whether 18 or 25, they are still children -- should be alone, unable to cope, and without the supports they need.  There are resources such as Active Minds (www.activeminds.org) working hard to raise awareness and garner support for college students with mental health issues.  We hear about these stories every day.  Yet when it happens to your child or in your community, it drives home the fact that some things have to change.  What are we waiting for?

-Debra I. Schafer, CEO

 

Leveling The Playing Field

Parents of high school kids know ... it's SAT and ACT season again.  Stress is on overdrive as everyone is striving for ways to improve scores - tutoring, prep classes, working through the huge practice books at home.  All eyes are focused on the thrill of receipt - opening the mail to find those glorious oversized packages with writing on the outside that says "You're accepted" or "Welcome."  Believe me, I've been there with my own child so understand it well. I just read an article in The New York Times entitled, "It Takes A B.A. To Find A Job As A File Clerk" which focuses on an Atlanta law firm that requires every employee - including the in-house courier making $10/hour - to have a bachelor's degree.  The firm's managing partner said that this requirement shows that every employee has made "a commitment" to their future and not just a paycheck.  Sounds reasonable since college is really about honing skills needed in most every line of employment - organization, planning, meeting deadlines, self-discipline, flexibility, and teamwork.

But here's the problem with requiring all employees to have a degree - there's a big difference between equal and fair.  Equal means the same but fair means, well, fair.  Respecting and supporting individual differences and recognizing that not everyone fits into the same box.  It means understanding that a 5th Grade child with dyslexia reading from a 3rd Grade book and receiving an "A" on an assignment is fair even if others are reading from the 5th Grade text.  That a college student who requires extra time and a quiet room to complete an exam is fair even if others are taking the same in a lecture hall with 150 other students.  It's about evaluating each person as an individual and on their own merits vs. expecting the same for all.  This "life lesson" begins in school and since school is about preparing children for life, shouldn't the same principle apply to the workplace as well?

Expecting every employee to hold a B.A. in order to secure employment means that many bright, capable, and talented young people will be overlooked.   Believe me, I'm a huge proponent of college and helping all students receive their degree, yet not everyone can reach this milestone.  For some it's financial.  For others it's access.  No matter the reason, it's unfair and unreasonable to assume that the reason a young person does not hold an undergraduate degree is because they don't aspire for success or don't want to invest in themselves.

There are many students with learning differences, Asperger's Syndrome, or ADD - with amazing skills and who would be top performers in the workplace - who are unable to navigate the complexities of college.  Maybe they tried but it didn't work.  Maybe they were told to not even consider college as an option.  Regardless of the reason, concluding that a young person without a B.A. is only focused on a paycheck is an arbitrary measure and one that places barriers where, in all likelihood, enormous barriers already exist.  And this includes even when, according to a recruiter referenced in the same article, 800 resumes are received for one job.

We all know people sans a college degree who have made contributions to every area of life - business, the arts, philanthropy, many achieving far more success (recognizing that success is subjective) than those with B.A.'s.  And this certainly includes many with learning or similar differences for whom their commitment to themselves is defined by the struggles they have endured and their "never give up" attitude to forge ahead.  College is wonderful, no doubt, yet self-respect and self-worth trumps it every time.  There's a reason it's called a playing field and not a playing box.  Fields are larger and allow for many to play.  Whether school, employment, or life, the larger the field the better.

Bullying and Tragedy

I would be remiss if I did not weigh in on the recent suicide of a bright, talented young man from Rutger's whose world was destroyed by two classmates out for a laugh.  To say that I am equally angered and heartbroken would be an understatement. Over the past decade, I have worked with hundreds upon hundreds of parents whose children have suffered bullying, harassment, and worse at the hands of peers.  Doesn't matter the grade -- 1st Grade, 5th Grade, 10th Grade, college.  And while attention to these issues has increased, so too has the number of young people who feel frightened, overwhelmed, without support, and as though whatever they are facing can not be handled any longer.

We have instituted "anti-bullying" programs in schools, churches, and synagogues ... started groups to address self-esteem issues for teens and special education issues in classrooms ... provided platforms for college students to stand-up and speak about the issues most important to them.  Yet this week, several children have ended their lives because clearly, things are not working.

We are losing our children.  Bright, talented, sensitive, aware children.   Children who were on the path to adulthood and who may have made contributions to our world that could have changed it for the better.  We can shake our heads and collectively mourn or can say "enough" and start to do something about it.

Are we raising our children to respect themselves and others, to value differences, and to embrace all perspectives and experiences?  Are we demonstrating a clear intolerance for anyone or anything different from ourselves?  What messages are we giving, both verbally and by our actions?  And what could be the consequences?

We are at a crossroads and we can either continue along the path we've been walking or can make a decision to change.  I cannot imagine the grief that this student's parents, family, and friends are experiencing.  What I can imagine is that this young man deserved the respect that we all desire.   And a precious life has been lost.