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Many college students can’t manage the stress of daily life. This tool can help.

Many factors in a college student's mental health are beyond their control. But mental-health professionals are increasingly focusing on one aspect that we can control: emotional resilience. And they say students should start building this skill as early as middle school.

Penn student Jennifer Richards was photographed near City Hall in Phila., Pa. on July 26, 2018.
Penn student Jennifer Richards was photographed near City Hall in Phila., Pa. on July 26, 2018.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Jennifer Richards was just days into her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania when a friend told her he wanted to kill himself. A few weeks later, another friend disclosed he'd swallowed dozens of pills in an attempt to end his life. She was the first person they each confided in, so she felt responsible to get them help.

It was more than most freshmen deal with in a year, let alone a month. But Richards, now a sophomore, says it shaped her college experience for the better. Both her friends received treatment. She joined student government to advocate for changes in mental-health policy and built a group of friends equally passionate about helping.

"I thought of it as, 'What happened, happened. But what can we do from this point on?' " Richards said.

That ability to channel a traumatic experience into positive action — also known as emotional resilience — is what mental-health professionals define as a key attribute of people who thrive in life.

Many factors in college students' mental health are beyond their control — a family history of illness or difficult life circumstances — but emotional resilience can be learned. And as thousands of students return to school and flood college campuses in Philadelphia this week, experts say parents and teachers alike should be focusing on helping them develop it. Beginning that training as early as middle school can help rein in the mental-health problems that have escalated on college campuses.

It can decrease rates of addiction and suicide by giving students tools to cope, they say. Studies show it also can improve academic achievement, graduation rates, and the likelihood for long-term career success.

It's no panacea, said Victor Schwartz, medical officer of the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent youth suicide. "There will still be life problems. There will still be people who develop disorders. But teaching students resilience will give them the best cushion they can have."

>> READ MORE: 'No student should ever have to be their friend's therapist.' But at colleges, that's often reality.

Some see the ability to rebound from disappointments, manage stress, and care for oneself as basic life skills. But mental-health professionals say students today aren't getting the chance to develop resilience — a trend they blame on escalating academic pressure from an early age, so-called helicopter parents who micromanage their children's lives, and the replacement of in-person interactions with technology.

A survey of more than 1,000 first-year college students found that one-third believed they couldn't manage the stress of day-to-day life. Sixty percent of students wished they'd received more preparation to navigate the emotional and social aspects of college.

Recognizing this need, several states have established standards for social and emotional learning. Pennsylvania has also created a program to train teachers in fostering student resilience. But the bulk of resiliency programs in middle and high schools are run by nonprofit community groups that come in to teach workshops.

A need to teach emotional resilience

After her sister died by suicide in 2011, Marisa Vicere found herself asking how she could move on with her life. She realized that "so much of it comes back to being resilient."

When she founded the Jana Marie Foundation six months later, Vicere insisted that resilience be a priority.

Last year, the central Pennsylvania nonprofit launched an online curriculum called Mind Matters to teach students in grades six to 12 about resilience. Anyone can access the materials for free and run the two-hour workshop that helps students build an identity beyond academics, develop coping mechanisms, and foster a positive mindset.

The curriculum has been downloaded about 40 times so far, Vicere said, a sign that at least some educators see the need to fill a gap. "Sometimes we're so focused on academics, we forget about some of those life skills that need the same level of focus," Vicere said.

Karriem Salaam, a psychiatrist and medical director of the adolescent unit at Friends Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia, said the enhanced focus on academics in families often stems from economic uncertainty. People believe that they need to go to an elite college to achieve financial success. "So parents impart on their kids this sense of urgency that you have to do everything right and do it early," he said.

Before she came to Penn, Richards, who is from San Diego, experienced the intense academic pressure of a high school that prized Advanced Placement courses over summer jobs, and SAT prep over student clubs. The competitive environment left her feeling drained.

After two years, she transferred. At the new school, she played varsity tennis and performed in theater productions. She learned to interact with different people, manage her schedule, and develop coping mechanisms — a lesson that would be key when she later entered Penn.

"When I was dealing with the incidents [of friends' crises]," she said, "I would play tennis, and it was like a vacation from real life. A few hours where I didn't think about those things."

>> READ MORE: How to help your 'crazy-stressed' teen

High academic stakes can also lead parents to become overbearing, said Shane Owens, a New York-based psychologist who works with college students and young adults. Parents fear letting their children fail, so they don't allow that to happen even in small ways, he said. Parents will help children with homework, monitor portals for grades daily and intervene with teachers when conflicts arise.

"Students get used to having parents stand in front of them as the emotional slings and arrows come at them throughout childhood," Owens said. When they're confronted with challenges or failure in college, they're not prepared to handle it.

And then there's the influence of technology. From information overload to a decrease in face-to-face interaction, experts say many aspects of screens and social media can heighten anxiety in young people and keep them from forming strong social networks that make people more resilient.

The solution ‘doesn’t need to be fancy’

The good news is the fix is relatively simple, said Schwartz, of the Jed Foundation. Kids can build resiliency by working as camp counselors or in retail, where they'll have to get along with different people. They can learn to overcome obstacles by organizing student club events and build independence by discussing concerns with teachers directly.

"It doesn't need to be fancy," Schwartz said. If it weren't for academic pressure and social media getting in the way, "these things would happen in the course of growing up."

Parents play an important role in building resilience, too, experts said. They can give kids more independence and responsibility as they get older — from cleaning their rooms to doing laundry, cooking and making their own decisions about when to study and when to have fun.

The key is to start early, said Salaam. "Developing resilience in a young person is a process, not the result of waving a magic wand," he said. "The sooner you get those resiliency muscles in shape, the more equipped they are."

Some psychologists suggest undertaking tasks targeted toward building specific skills. If you're a perfectionist, turn in an imperfect assignment to see that the consequences aren't as dire as you might think. If talking to new people makes you anxious, practice placing an order at a restaurant and then changing it.

Elana Crown, a 19-year-old volunteer with the Jana Marie Foundation, said resiliency for her is having a series of coping mechanisms. An artist, she often uses drawing and music to manage her depression and anxiety. Practicing resilience has helped the State College, Pa., teen tackle challenges head on, she said.

At the end of last year, she was feeling hopeless. Since she graduated high school in the spring, she'd been working as a receptionist, even though her dream was to become a professional artist. Rather than get stuck in that mindset, she developed a plan. She will start college in the fall to study graphic art.

"My resilience helped encourage me that I had a future," Crown said. "Just because it didn't look exactly as I had imagined didn't mean it was worthless."