While the achievements of college men frequently receive wide attention, many young men struggle or engage in risky behaviors during college. For example, college men are less likely than women to use sun screen or wearing seat belts. On a more serious note, college men are more likely to engage in sexual assault, as well as drug and alcohol abuse and other high-risk behaviors. The vast majority of conduct problems on college campuses are committed by males. It is important to note that almost all of the perpetrators of shootings on school campuses have been men. Moreover, six out of seven of college-aged suicides are committed by men.
Yet despite these very troubling statistics and risk factors, college men are less likely to seek help for the physical or emotional concerns than women.
Why are young men at such risk?
While families and cultures vary in how they raise their sons, young men’s struggles are often the result of male socialization that emphasizes being strong, independent and unemotional. Boys frequently feel that the only emotion that is acceptable for them to express is anger. Furthermore, many boys and men have been shamed for needing others. A young boy who clings to his mother or cries may hear the stinging ridicule, “Don’t be a mamma’s boy.”
The resulting fear and rejection of dependency diminishes men’s ability to seek support when they need it. As early as elementary school, boys are more reluctant than girls to seek out a school nurse or school counselor. When young men leave home to attend college, it may be one of the most exciting yet frightening changes of their life. However, many young men feel they must make this transition without expressing any fears or doubts and without the benefit of support.
College is a time when many young men enter their first serious relationships. If and when these relationships fail, young men are at particular risk. Not only is he losing the person who may be his primary emotional support, he may have trouble seeking support from another and otherwise managing the painful feelings of loss. The inability to ask for help and lean on others can make an emotionally trying situation all the more unbearable.
As a parent, you may find it painful to watch your male student struggle with the emotional challenges of young adulthood. In light of these potential deficits and risks, here are some ways that parents can be helpful:
Encourage help seeking. Let your male student know that acknowledging a problem and seeking help is a sign of strength and courage, not of weakness. Parents can model this behavior by showing that they actively seek support when they need it. Fathers can play a particular role in modeling this help-seeking behavior. You can normalize help seeking with statements like, “I was worried about my health, so I went to the doctor,” or, “Last year I was feeling depressed, and I went to see a counselor.”
Be aware of potential high risk times for your son such as the break up of a romantic relationship, academic failure or other perceived loss or disappointment.
Express concern about unhealthy risk taking behavior Some parents may have the misconception that frequent drug and alcohol use is a college norm. While ultimately students’ behavior is their choice, it can be helpful for them to hear your views.
Engage your student in an open, two-way conversation. An ideal tone might be one of loving, non-judgmental concern (which, admittedly, can be challenging in times of strong feelings.) Choose a good time for both of you, preferably in person. In addition to expressing your views, invite and be open to hearing your student’s feelings and concerns. Acknowledge his need for increased independence and autonomy, as well as his need for support. You can level the playing field by owning your own vulnerabilities, i.e., “I care about you and I really was worried when I saw how much you were drinking last term – especially because of our family history.”
Be aware that some young men attempt to mask feelings of fear and depression with anger. It is not unusual for this anger to be directed at those they feel the safest with — their parents. Sometimes, tension between parents and a student make it difficult for parents to provide emotional help and support for their son. If this is the case, encourage help seeking or connection with other resources e.g. friends, siblings, other family members and/or professional help.
Seek consultation: If you are worried about the safety or well being of your college son, consider consulting with a therapist in your community and/or calling the University Counseling and Testing Office 346-3227.
The UO offers a number of services which can be helpful for your student. Recognizing when your student may need additional support and helping them seek it may be a challenge. Building a positive relationship in each interaction and keeping open lines of communication lays the groundwork for helping your student when times get tough. While students grow by working through the emotional challenges of young adulthood, parents can help them make healthy decisions and learn the important lesson that even men can and should rely on others for support.
Jon Davies is a staff psychologist at the University Counseling & Testing Center. While he is a generalist, he specializes in men’s issues and is the advisor to the UO Men’s Center. He is also a parent of two adult sons.
Mark Evans is a staff psychologist at the University Counseling & Testing Center who has worked with men’s issues for many years. He also directs the Oregon University Suicide Prevention Project.