Dori S. Hutchinson
Hutchinson, the director of services at Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, has strong feelings about why young people commit horrific crimes such as the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. — and what colleges and universities can do to prevent them.
Q. Why are we as a society constantly surprised when we hear about students such as James Holmes, who allegedly opened fire last month in a Colorado movie theater, and Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech five years ago?
A. Particularly on college campuses, we tend to react rather than be proactive in responding to students in distress.
Q. Is this generation of students different from previous ones?
A. There’s been research that shows [this generation is] as much as 40 percent less empathetic than their counterparts of 20 to 30 years ago. [There’s] this empathy deficit, where people see no sense of collective responsibility toward each other. They’re very self-centered, very competitive, very accomplished, very entitled. Driven toward perfection. They’re also considered the most miserable generation. They’re not prepared to discover that dreams don’t always come true. Students often lack emotional resiliency.
Q. And they’re the first generation raised on social media.
A. They’re spending their emotional and social lives online instead of in real relationships. When you’re spending a lot of your life online, that serves as an emotional buffer. It’s easier to ignore your own distress and others’ distress.
Q. Are you also suggesting that the way we parent today helps create this distress and lack of resiliency?
A. Because we’re so anxious to give our children every opportunity to succeed, we prevent them from experiencing life’s disappointments. If someone’s struggling in school, we get them a tutor. We’re constantly building their resumes from a very early age on. Mental health gets depleted pretty quickly when you’re dealing with academic stress, and financial stress, and relationship distress.
Q. How does this distress show up on campuses?
A. Thirty-one percent of college students report feeling so depressed in the last 12 months that it was difficult to function. As many as 18 percent of undergraduates have thought about suicide. There’s a real rise in risky behaviors on campus — binge drinking has really risen in the last decade.
Q. At Boston University, you offer empathy training and have started a Center for Sexual Assault and Violence, among other programs aimed at defusing this stress.
A. We’re really trying to build a caring community, so [at] any sign of distress, people will reach out to that person. Taking a proactive community responsibility approach is a really important way to intervene. Creating an environment and a culture that says we care about you, we value your mental health, and recognize that your mental health is important in your academic, social, and physical well-being.
Q. Does that just continue the sheltering and sense of entitlement you see in this generation?
A. I don’t think we’re sheltering when we recognize distress. We’re saying: I care enough about you to notice that you’re really struggling.
Q. What do you do as the parent of a high schooler and two college students because you understand these trends?
A. What I’ve tried very hard to do is not to protect my children from their life’s disappointments, but to just be supportive and empathetic when they’re experiencing them. Acknowledge the negative realities: You didn’t make the team, and that’s so disappointing, you didn’t get an A, you got a B — rather than give the message that somehow it’s not good enough if you’re not the best at everything you do. The drive for perfection creates a lot of anxiety.
Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karen