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First exams in college and their link to suicide

How college students internalize their first failures as a reflection of who they are, rather than what they did.

Insert name of prestigious school, and how proud you are that your young adult is attending said school.  Whether it was your alma mater, or a school even more elite than where you graduated.  You know your young adult took the ACT five times in order to get the test scores to get into said school.  You didn’t push them to do that, and yet you also wrote out the checks.  They know the stakes are high because of the admit rate.  They are led to believe they’re prepared for the academic rigors. So off they go to college and we can only hope the best for them.  That is, until they get their first exam grades.

Anything below a B can be catastrophic.  This is a student who has excelled most if not all of their life.  They thought they did well leaving the exam, but when they get their grade back and see what they didn’t do well as they thought it can feel like the end of the world.  That’s not an exaggeration.  They have always been a star student, until this point.  Their identity is linked to their academic success.  When they get this less-than-ideal grade they tell themselves “I’m a failure.  I am not good enough to be at this school.  My parents can’t know I am failing.  They’ll be so disappointed in me.”  This self-talk is what crumbles the very foundation that these students stand on.

They go from being confident, excited, and accomplished to inferior, unmoored, and shattered in a matter of seconds.  The pervasive shaming self-talk of “I’m a failure” is what leads college students to suicide ideation.  They may have never experienced failure before, especially in the academic realm.  When it happens, because it does happen(!), if they can separate the grade as what they earned instead of who they are, they may be able to get over this.  But more than not, students struggle to separate who they are from what they’ve done, and what grades they’ve earned.

If you aren’t familiar with shame, I encourage you to do some reading.  This is the only way you’ll be able to help your young adult when it’s clear that they are depressed.  They may not even tell you they’ve failed assignments, out of embarrassment and shame.  They’d rather suffer in silence than hear what you have to say about how they failed an assignment.  That’s a dangerous relationship to have as a parent.  You want your young adult to be open with communication.  You want to be there for them if they need you.

So, as your young adult is muddling through their academic semester pay attention to the questions you ask, your tone, and the shaming words that you may unintentionally be using.  If your student just experienced their first failed exam, you want me to make sure they tell you about it.  You want to make sure they know you’re still proud of them, no matter what grades they earn.  And most importantly, who they are isn’t solely tied to the grades in their classes.  They are so much more.  

Now, if your young adult is not open to communication and is struggling academically, these messages could actually do more harm than good.  Please use with discretion.  Our young people are putting pressure on themselves as they believe that there is pressure being placed by everyone else on them as well.  We need to rise up as a community to help these young people move away from this destructive perfectionism.  It’s not realistic.  We need to help them understand what their reality could truly be.

For more information, check out my post on Lilley Consulting Facebook page.

For anyone looking for additional resources around mental health, substance abuse, college transition coaching, or parent resources you can find them on: https://www.lilley-consulting.com/ or follow @lilleyconsulting, or https://www.facebook.com/LilleyConsultingLLC/.

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