[OPINION] Lies we tell our students

Two years ago, I started a research study on the mental health of university students. In March of this year, some were randomly selected to complete an anonymous survey. The preliminary data from nearly 1,200 students paints a grim picture: They are going through an emotional crisis. (READ: The cruelty of mental illness)

Nearly one-third have been feeling down, depressed, or hopeless for most days or for nearly every day in recent weeks. More than 40% have reported feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge just as frequently. (READ: [OPINION] Mental health is not special)

In the past 12 months, an alarming one in 5 made a plan to kill himself. The most disturbing finding was that over that period, 92 students attempted to commit suicide.

This crisis in university mental health is surely common across the country. What is going on? Why are our young Filipinos struggling and suffering so much? (READ: How these millennials are fighting mental illness with art, Scripture)

There is one possible explanation: the lies we tell them.

Success brings happiness

This is a lie. We believe that life is good when we are successful. We link joy to our external world – that we are happy if only we are performing, if only we are producing, if only we are delivering. We should do more, be more, be better. But every time we reach our goal, the goal line moves.

At an early age, we’re already engraving this lie on them. We celebrate good grades and punish those with bad grades. We push for the top-tiered university, but disregard what these kids really want.

I know many students applying for or going to medical school with zero interest in being a physician, but they are under extreme pressure to satisfy the wishes of their family and even their peers.

And their mental well-being suffers for it. We have cultivated a culture that bullhorns one piercing message: You are not good enough. (READ: Why ‘success’ means different things for different people)

The truth is, success at school or at work is only marginally fulfilling. It spares us the shame, fear, and vulnerability of not reaching the goal line. If we build our lives around success, we set ourselves up for failure.

You need to be innovative

This is another lie we dump on young Filipinos. This is the lie that they need to come up with the next cool thing.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive systems – all sound exciting and will supposedly disrupt the job market. They might improve self-driving cars, but I bet our students will still make copies of class handouts at Nanay Ising’s Original Photocopy across the street from campus.

They might develop an app that turns on the coffeemaker in the morning, but this does not help our plummeting vaccination rates. Predictive analytics will help us track our Jollibee or McDonald’s order, but this just means that we will have an easier time watching salty and fatty food come closer and closer to our front door.

In the constant push to innovate, we steer students away from a deeper understanding of our decades-long problems, and so their “innovative” solutions are those that address the mundane.

This quest to make our lives easier is making things unnecessarily complicated. It is actually a yearning for perfectionism. It also feeds into a very familiar problem: poor implementation of solutions long known to work.

You are self-entitled

This is the prevailing blanket statement, that young Filipinos are owed something. Making unreasonable demands, breaking the rules, acting superior – these are some of the stereotypes we have about young people. These are all lies.

The truth is, young Filipinos are not entitled.

None of our complaints are unique to them. Our wartime grandparents made the same noise about Baby Boomers, who similarly cried foul about Generation X. I am going out on a limb here: Mary and Joseph had the same quibble about Jesus.

We effectively dismiss their ideas at a time when we should be cultivating their dreams, empowering their choices, and guiding their trajectory. (READ: The Filipino Millenial)

When they cross the line and some will indeed make tiresome demands, break the rules, or are self-centered, we can provide critical feedback in a respectful, appropriate, and constructive manner as we would with any student or employee.

This feedback has little to do with them being a millennial or Generation Z but more to do with modeling empathic leadership.

Suffering is a badge of honor

This is perhaps the most insidious and harmful lie of all. This is the lie that as long we are struggling, others will love us. If we are miserable at school or work, it must mean we are doing well.

And these, too, pierce through our mental health. We deprive young Filipinos of their genuine feelings and thoughts and disempower them from skillfully handling them when they become too much.

The reality is that suffering is not a necessary ingredient for us to grow and thrive. Bad days, failures, and insecurities are part of life. But these need not enslave us.

Joy does not have to be a by-product of hard work. It can be central to it. It is not something that only happens at the end of a final exam, at graduation, or at the start of a new job.

Happiness need not be circumscribed to a particular moment or conditional to a specific deliverable. We can feel happy before, throughout, and long after – and independent of – all these things.

The mental health of our young Filipinos will continue to suffer as long as these lies are preached as truth. (READ: National Center for Mental Health crisis hotline now open– Rappler.com

Dr Ronald del Castillo is a professor of psychology, public health, and health policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.