I’ve never met a heroin addict that did not try heroin.
I’ve never met someone who has driven drunk that did not get drunk.
I’ve never cared for a college student who died from drug or alcohol abuse that did not consume drugs or alcohol.
We have to address hazing on college campuses, there is no question. But the majority of college students don’t haze or participate in hazing. They are, for the most part, good and honorable people who would never consider causing physical harm to another or coercing a friend to engage in dangerous behavior. But still, the start of each new year will bring with it new headlines and videos of grieving parents warning students about hazing, demanding changes in the laws or renewed accountability of institutions both fraternal and academic.
These are pleas that often fall on deaf ears because their focus is mostly on the victimizers, those who promote and encourage this behavior—and the simple truth is . . . victimizers don’t care. While the average student will gaze upon these lectures and these videos, and certainly will feel sorry for the grieving party, they will still be of the mind-set, “They aren’t talking about me, I don’t haze and I wouldn’t be hazed, I would never do that, I’d quit first.”
But they are wrong. Some are too close to the mirror to see their own reflection. The gradual creep of complacency and groupthink is as subtle as a slow-growing cancer, and young people simply don’t know what they don’t know.
On our part, there has to be a shift in philosophical teaching when it comes to this behavior. We have to realize that what we think we know about the socialization of youth through the centuries has literally been turned upside down by social media, Covid-19, and a whole host of seismic changes in culture and thinking.
We have come to believe that a high school résumé stuffed full of activities that point toward socialization and popularity is the “right stuff” for the manicured path to adulthood. We just might be wrong.
“Great kid, very popular, lots of friends.” These words have been uttered at far too many funerals of young people who fall victim to hazing or coercive behaviour. But these are also the same words uttered at the same funerals for those who made a conscious decision to stay and not walk away when it was in their best interest to do just that. “Fuck you, I’m not doing that” needs to roll off their tongues as easily as “I love you, Mom, I love you, Dad.” How do we get there?
While popularity might point to a happy, well-adjusted kid, capable of making friends, it also might be a sign that your kid NEEDS to have a lot of friends and a constant stream of social interactions. There is a difference with being popular and needing to be popular. This need for 24/7 socialization, from social media to social venues, is the crack cocaine of this generation and it just may be the real drug that leads them to chug that shot, or snort that line, or pop that “bar” of Xanax, or permit themselves to be locked in a room with a mandate of “don’t you leave until you drink it all.” It is their oxygen. We have to show them there are other ways to breathe.
I like to think that Covid-19 and the abrupt cessation of crowd socialization may have helped young people realize that they can survive without the fear of missing out, but I’m not so sure. Our ERs are stuffed to the gills lately of young people in the throes of major depression and suicidality, so many seem sadder and are starving for friendship and social interaction. I fear this may lead to a kind of caution-blindness on their part.
“Hell, I picked up and went across the country to get away from all my friends, to start anew, to grow as a person, as an individual,” my partner and fellow ER physician Dr. Krug told me. “I’m not so sure these kids are ready for all this.” I tend to agree.
We have to teach incoming students that the transition to adulthood is a singular road of individual self-discovery and that, while magical, it is riddled with potholes of those who will pressure, coerce, haze, and lead them to that needle and bottle and wheel and bridge if they are not of solid mind and armed with the shield-of-will to say NO. Should they be without this armor, they have no business being in college.
The fall school year of 2021 will be unprecedented, and as an Emergency Physician I sadly predict we will see more deaths from reckless college behavior than we have ever seen before. We will literally be looking at two years’ worth of students dumped into one millue who have had little time to howl at the moon, socialize, and grow on top with being behind academically. We should predict that there will be a surge in drug- and alcohol-related problems and mental health issues on college campuses. I fear that colleges across the country are ill-prepared for this, so it is up to us, the parents, to arm our students now. Give them the tools, have the hard talks with them, really look at them and ask yourself if they have the inner determination to be their own person no matter how many prom courts they stood in or student governing positions they held, or captains of sports they were awarded. College will always be there, but don’t count on colleges to protect them. That’s up to you.
So as a seasoned ER doc, I would ask that you start now, before the beginning of the school year. Hold them in your arms, peer into their eyes, tell them what the world will look like to you if they die, how you won’t survive, how you will never be happy again. Make them see the love you have for them. Arm them with the “shield of NO.” Listen to them, don’t be afraid to bring them home if you sense they aren’t ready—this isn’t a race against other students. Don’t compare your kid to the one down the street—they are all unique so love them uniquely.
Be diligent and aware this coming school year, listen with open ears, see with open eyes, and love with a full heart.
“Great kid, very popular, lots of friends.” These words should only be uttered at birthdays and weddings.
Never at a funeral.
Dr. Louis M. Profeta is an emergency physician practicing in Indianapolis and a member of the Indianapolis Forensic Services Board. He is a national award-winning writer, public speaker and one of LinkedIn's Top Voices and the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Patient in Room Nine Says He's God. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org is welcomed. For other publications and for speaking dates, go to louisprofeta.com. For college speaking inquiries, contact email@example.com.
Dr Louis M. Profeta is an emergency physician practicing in Indianapolis. He is one of LinkedIn's Top Voices and the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Patient in Room Nine Says He's God. Dr Louis holds a medical degree from the Indiana University Bloomington.