For author and entrepreneur Todd Patkin, going off to college was not exactly a fond memory.
"Everyone tells you it's going to be the time of your life, but I had the worst experience," said Patkin, now 48 and the author of "Finding Happiness: One Man's Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and — Finally — Let the Sunshine In" (StepWise Press). "I was homesick and miserable, and wound up coming home after the first semester."
Being homesick is not the same as being depressed, of course. But the feelings of sadness and anxiety can interfere with studies and social life. And it's widespread: Patkin, who travels the country talking to students about his struggles with anxiety and depression, noted a 2007 report by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute that found more than 65 percent of college freshmen experienced periods of homesickness.
"You go off to school and for the first time in your life, nothing is familiar," Patkin said. "You don't have the room you grew up in, or any of the comforts of home. Your friends are all new. You have to cook for yourself and get up and go to class on your own. This whole transition can be so stressful."
We talked to Patkin about his experiences, as well as his advice for new college students. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Are there lessons you learned that you can share with kids about your own challenges adjusting to college?
A: I really didn't love myself, so I felt like I had to be perfect to be accepted. In high school it was easier to ace everything, but when I went to Tufts University, which is a tough school, so many other people had excelled in high school, and it became much more competitive. I was the kind of guy that if I got four A's and a B, that B just killed me. I put so much stress on myself.
But you don't need to graduate with a (straight A's). You can't win being a perfectionist. We are humans and we're always going to make at least one mistake a day.
Q: How did things improve?
A: I wound up taking the second semester off, and my dad had started going to the gym, so I started going to the gym too. That became really helpful when I went back to school. The exercise elevated my mood. I transferred to another school that wasn't as competitive. I played a sport and had a girlfriend. So it was a better environment for me with less pressure.
Q: What advice would you give parents whose kids are about to make this transition?
A: For parents, you need to understand your children: If your child tries to be perfect you have to help them try to break that pattern. It's about balance. You need to lower your stress levels and be happy.
Sleep is grossly underestimated too.
If (kids) have had a history for being homesick, maybe (parents) noticed this when they went off to camp. I always recommend (attending a) school somewhere close to home. When kids feel totally alone and they don't know where to turn, it's really dangerous. It makes a lot of sense for them to be closer ... and get the support of the family.
And set up a time to Skype with your kid a couple times a week to see how they are doing.
Q: What do you wish you knew then that you know now?
A: There is so much support now that wasn't there when I went to school. Colleges have good programs now for kids who are suffering ... (and they) should be open to getting the help they need.