Navigating Life Changes Not Always Easy

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Transitions are part of our lives and often require additional supportive measures.

No matter if we are starting college, a new job, moving, losing a close friend or relative, watching our youngest child leave home or retiring from our careers, we are often expected to handle the change smoothly and with ease. In all of these situations, we are no different than the little chick being pushed out of the nest to live independently.

Unfortunately, changes are not always simple, and we don’t always soar through the sky as planned.

Life’s transitions are not as simple as the Nike ad that says, “Just Do It.” Change is not an immediate process, and additional support is often needed in various ways.

Attending college is not always stress-free since young people are required to balance their schedules on their own, do laundry and deal with increased academic and social pressures. The pressures of Greek life have been a focus of additional stress and sometimes danger for students. Many students need, and hopefully request, additional mental health services because of depression and anxiety symptoms.

Unfortunately, many colleges aren’t sufficiently staffed, and turnaround time to provide support can be lengthy. College students often feel they should be independent adults and decide to figure things out on their own without communicating with parents, friends or support systems.

Additionally, their parents may also need support. It is not always a seamless transition when your child leaves home for college, especially in the case of the empty nester who may not embrace their newfound freedom.

A recent article in Time magazine titled “Why College is a Risky Time for Students’ Mental Health” discusses the need for support during the college years. It includes a scenario where a mother learns that, for a long period, her son didn’t attend classes or socialize after being hospitalized.

Unfortunately, parents are often not notified of health issues or lack of class attendance after their child reaches the age of 18. It is important for parents and their adult children to sign appropriate forms so that their parents are notified of health problems and are permitted to make health care decisions.

Young adulthood is a critical time when mental illnesses manifest. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 75 percent of mental illnesses appear by age 24 and are experienced by 43.8 million adults. Fortunately, a number of colleges throughout the country have identified the need to pinpoint the onset of mental health symptoms and provide a variety of support and counseling services.

One type of support is an event at the University of Michigan called the Mental Health Monologues, which allows students to share their personal experiences about mental illness in a group format. This format can be useful for individuals experiencing various types of transition-related stressors.

Seniors are another population group facing transitional stress. They deal with big life changes such as retirement and new health concerns that create a need for additional support with overall daily living and medical management.

Our society is not necessarily geared to identify, provide support and meet these needs. Because of health concerns, seniors are often faced with the need to leave the comfort of their homes and live in assisted living or long-term care facilities, or accept services at home. Finding transportation options, social programs and supportive measures can be difficult.

One creative option discussed in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article is the creation of “virtual villages” that help seniors age in place.

For various fees, seniors can remain in their homes and receive support from a network of services, including rides to doctor’s appointments, the homes of friends and family, social outings or to food stores and pharmacies. In the Philadelphia area, there are villages located in Philadelphia, Springfield (Delaware County) and two counties in New Jersey. Another consideration for seniors is living with family members. By adding additional living spaces, multiple generations can live together while sharing expenses.

There is no question that transitions are part of our lives and affect people from all age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. For some people, transitions may be smooth sailing, but for others, they are more like a roller coaster ride with highs and lows.

Similar supportive measures can help college students, empty nesters, individuals experiencing bereavement and seniors facing the challenge of aging. Self-care programs including mindfulness, stress reduction and yoga can be helpful. Attending buddy programs and groups with individuals facing the same transitional issues can also provide support.

The process of recognizing the need for transitional support has begun in some sectors, but more progress is needed for the roller coaster ride to follow a path of smooth sailing. 

Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D., is a staff psychologist at Abramson Center.

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