Among the many concerns facing the younger generation, mental health problems are on the rise in colleges and universities across the country. The prediction that these conditions will get worse and that college students will face a mental health epidemic is alarming. It is estimated that about 25% of students arrive on campus medicated on prescription drugs, even though the majority of students who suffer from anxiety or some form of mental disorder are in denial because of the stigma of mental illness.
For the past seven years, as a theater professor at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, I have witnessed this growing trend. Although I am not a professional caregiver or counselor, I have been placed in a position to witness the rise of anxiety, confusion, mental disorder, trauma, and illness. Students are stressed and burdened by the high costs, the competitive nature of higher education, and the expectations placed on them by parents and society. They are coming to college over-prepared intellectually and under-developed emotionally and socially, and the anxiety some students feel about being successful and doing well is exacerbated by the demands and conditions of college life.
Again and again in my classes I see all the indicators and manifestations of my students’ mental condition. I hear students exclaim their experiences in the the heat of the moment: “I’m stuck in my head,” “I can’t get out of my head,” “I’m over thinking it,” “it feels like my head is about to explode!” At times they simply walk out of class because they are having a panic attack. I have had a student black-out and collapse on the floor. When the ambulance was called and the student was taken to hospital, we discovered the diagnosis: “too much pressure on the brain.” Another time, I admitted a student to the psychiatric ward because she was placing herself and others in danger. This decision was incredibly difficult—it was the last thing I wanted to do—but when the severity of the problem and the danger to her personal safety was recognized, her mother wrote to me: “Getting her admitted was a mighty feat and so beyond what anyone could imagine any teacher having to do or being willing to help save a student’s life. Seeing a student you love and who loves you go through something like that is terrifying.... You will forever have our gratitude for caring enough to help not just [her], but her frightened friends who had no idea how to manage this situation.” In many ways these observations point to symptoms of deterioration in the quality of college education, and in education more generally.
Change does not come easily—especially in big institutions like established colleges and universities—but change is necessary. It is obvious that students go to college in order to follow their dreams and achieve their ideals. But does an established, academic education based on a one-sided development of intellectual capacities actually hinder such achievements? We achieve our ideals through the healthy development and activation of the will. Without an individualized will, dedicated to ideals, students can begin to flounder. There are so many distractions in the world today and there is a comfort in giving over to them and before long the dream disappears.
How do we steer our way through the labyrinth of life when the labyrinth is getting more and more tangled every day? In order to achieve our ideals we need to be active with our whole being, and in this regard, concentration is the golden key. I am not speaking about the concentration of the brain that we learned in school. I am speaking about the concentration we can develop as artists. In my movement, speech, and acting classes, I encourage a concentration that does not occupy the brain but arises out of a full-body participation with sound and movement. This shift in the understanding of concentration opens the door to a whole range of creative abilities. To let go in order to let come is an essential ingredient in the joy of this special kind of concentration—a concentration of our whole being. Without it we cannot achieve our dreams. As the acting teacher Michael Chekhov said “Our mission is to show the world that the human heart still lives. What the human brain can say has already been said, written and read. But the human heart has not yet been discovered.”
John McManus is a theater professor at Point Park University and has developed The High Falls Theater Ensemble. The likely pilot cohort will begin in 2021/2022 .