Colleges have a role in cultivating hopefulness in a generation of young people suffering the mental health effects of the pandemic and political conflict, Sian Beilock writes.

Sian Beilock | published February 22, 2023
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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.

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