What’s a syndemic? It refers to multiple interrelated epidemics happening at the same time. The COVID pandemic has given rise to just this situation, as it has exacerbated already existing issues in our society, raising them to epidemic levels.
If you’re working in college student affairs, you witness the syndemic every day. Mental health issues were already on the rise when I was a residence hall director in the early 2000’s, and anxiety, depression, and loneliness are now at epidemic levels. As young people face these challenges, more are turning to substance abuse as a form of self-medication, and so there’s another epidemic to add to the pile. What can we do to help young people face these challenges?
At the broadest level, it’s about skill development. Coping is a skill. Self-management is a set of skills. What are the core skills that college students need to have a positive college experience? The list can get long pretty quickly, but relative to taking on these issues of anxiety and loneliness, I think there are three essential skills we can help college students improve:
- Emotional intelligence
If college is supposed to be preparing young adults for the “real world,” then it must do a better job of teaching what are known as “soft skills.” One element of the syndemic is a lack of self-awareness, at all age ranges, genders, and socio-economic levels of society. People also have less awareness of what’s going on for the people around them, and when they do sense a problem, they don’t know what to do about it because they lack the ability to formulate an empathetic response.
I don’t think anyone would argue against the continued improvement of communication skills, but it’s the context of those communication skills that is vital. If one is admitted to a university or college, it should be based on a clear demonstration of proficiency in written and spoken communication, and yet today’s students are averse to communication that goes beyond the superficial. That’s not a judgment on my part, but self-reported by students themselves. According to the landmark CIGNA study, Gen Z (adults ages 18-22) has the highest loneliness score (48.3) of people surveyed. Loneliness, as an element of the syndemic, cannot be addressed without improving communication skills.
- Conflict Resolution
Young adults today are painfully uncomfortable with conflict. I saw this worsening condition twenty years ago as a residence hall director. Students who had roommates, when faced with a conflict, would change rooms rather than discuss the issue. Advocating for yourself while maintaining compassion for the person you have conflict with is an essential skill that must be brought back into everyday life. Anxiety, as an element of the syndemic, feels like an existential threat for many people. It can be improved by helping people improve their own ability to look inward, assess their perceived threats, and formulate a response to those conflicts.
What Do We Do About It?
One of the most valuable things I got from training as a hypnotist is the concept of the re-frame. We all have limiting beliefs that form unhelpful mental models. In order to escape the model, we must re-frame our belief, find a new perspective. I think the most common overarching unhelpful mental model today is one in which people define their lives by the conditions around them.
The syndemic (epidemic levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance abuse, etc) is a set of outcomes, not a primary set of problems. We live in challenging times. Climate change, the pandemic, income inequality, and social justice issues are a core set of problems that are overwhelming people and creating the perception that they live in unsafe conditions. It’s not a question of whether that perception is true or not; the issue is how do we build a contextual understanding of our human experience that helps us feel empowered to get through daily living?
We re-frame from an external locus of control to an internal one. The external factors–violence, famine, civil unrest, etc–are as old as humanity itself. Human existence has never been one of complete safety. Rather than focusing on external conditions in a way that underscores a feeling of powerlessness and despair, let’s encourage one another to focus on internal conditions that are completely within our control: awareness, growth, and compassion.
I can work, every day, on improving my awareness of what’s going on around me. I can improve my skills of emotional intelligence, communication, and conflict resolution so that I’m actually able to do something about what’s going on around me. I don’t have to fix the world’s problems; I can be responsible for myself in such a manner that I model to others how to live ethically, compassionately, in ways that actually have an impact on other people and make the world a better place.
The syndemic poses real problems for all of us, but those problems, themselves, are really outcomes or by-products of other problems. The solution to these problems is skill-based, and must be approached at an individual level. Adopting the mental model that everything we do is a skill, and skills can always be improved, puts us in an empowered position to make life better.