A Framework For Handling Homesickness

College as the Hero’s Journey: Homesickness and the Road of Trials.

This summer I had the privilege, as I have for several years now, of working and learning from the good folks and campers at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, CT, just a stone’s throw up Route 44 from UConn. There, I learn more than I teach, and get more than I give. This year I took away the concept of The Hero’s Journey. This theory (born from the work of Joseph Campbell) guides a program for older campers by the same name and highlights the ways in which kids who are seriously ill are called to the challenge of camp, transformed by that challenge, and return home with the gifts of freedom, confidence and mastery. This metaphor seems to also be a perfect fit to help guide us in understanding the struggles of students heading off to your first semester at college, and hopefully provides a helpful framework for understanding that discomfort can be essential to “get to the next step” in life.

Stage 1: Departure: Crossing the Threshold

You have been called to a challenge at UConn. Like many great mythical figures before you (think Dorothy, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins) the call to leave the comforts of the shire for unknown lands is operative for your growth. While fear, insecurity, concerns and obligations at home, at times pull our hero to refuse the call, you have already crossed the threshold and left the known limits of your familiar home (albeit well-supplied by Bed, Bath and Beyond). You are, in Joseph Campbell’s terms, “in the belly of the beast”.

Stage 2: Initiation & The Road of Trials

Our hero journeys along a road of trials marked by tests and ordeals. If you miss home these tests are apparent and immediate. You may doubt that you have the intellect, the courage, or the heart for the trip and at times may need to reach out for help. Inevitably, in the era of texting 24-7, that call may be to family and your first instinct may be to cry for rescue. Both you and your family may do well to hold steady and remember the importance of this quest! Perhaps you should consider reaching out to more local resources for a hand? Dorothy didn’t travel the road alone, and you shouldn’t have to either. Of course, moderation and judgment is important in all things, and in times of true crisis, family is often an important critical resource upon which you should rely. There is an entire cast of characters at the ready to help during these difficult times. Scarecrow-like concerns are common, and we have many offices dedicated to assist with study strategies and academic advising. For the more Lion and Tin-Man like issues of emotional coping a continuum of support is available all the way from the hall Resident Assistant to the counselors at Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS). Importantly though, the helpers along the road endeavor to guide you back to your own strength. Obi Wan taught Luke to use the force that was essentially inside him all along. At CMHS we talk a lot about RESILIENCE, and ask students in distress to specifically list their strengths. As you reach out for help, we hope you are also reminded that the force is within you!

Stage 3: Return

According to Joseph Campbell the challenge of the return is for the hero to retain the wisdom gained on the quest and share this wisdom with one’s community. Alright, perhaps this won’t happen by semester break of the first year. Ultimately however, although the long road of college will have many challenges, these all contribute to the end product–a YOU who returns more comfortable, competent and confident than when you left.

Some Other Helpful Tips

For Dealing With Homesickness:

O.K.–here comes the advice. Homesickness is common we encourage you to try these tips:

  • Get connected to your new home:
    Have you considered joining clubs? Joining a study group? Getting involved in intramurals? A service project? Approximate a psychologically smaller space at this very large university. Frequent visits home may disrupt connection to your new home.
  • Just talk to someone:
    Sometimes we just need to ventilate our feelings and then can get about the work of solving the problem ourselves. Talk to supportive listeners and then ask yourself what you can do to make the situation better.
  • Know warning signs of more significant concerns and become active help-seekers in these cases:
    If you are having a mental health crisis you WILL need the help and support of your entire network. We’ve asked your family to step in and be active helpers in these cases. Homesickness lasts a few weeks or more. A few crying spells but basic ability to get about the life of a college student is normal. By contrast, clinical depression is marked by depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure in all activities, and marked disruption in functioning all day nearly every day for a period of two weeks. Anxiety disorders are also one of the most common presentations in college students. Frequent and debilitating panic and inability to engage in the basic activities of college life, such as getting meals, and attending classes, obviously may signal a larger problem. If you experience an inability to function in these ways or are feeling hopelessness or having thoughts of harming self or others, please consult with a mental health professional (or in emergency situations call 911 immediately). As well, if you see these signs in others, help them reach out to resources.
  • For more great tips: http://royaloak.patch.com/articles/tips-for-preventing-homesickness-in-college-students

Your Family’s Hero’s Journey; Some Tips for the Kid-Sick Parent:

Every year during orientation parents, only partially in jest, come up to our booth at Counseling and Mental Health Services and say, “I’m the one who is going to need a therapist!” With quavering voices, you talk about the process-the shopping for coordinating comforters, the packing, the tension, the unpacking, and inevitably, the sadness. The realization hits that after years of dutiful sideline-sitting, cupcake-making, curfew-checking, and homework-helping, the object of your vigilance is now, *Gasp* gone! And you thought you would NEVER miss those wet towels on the floor?! Whether it is your first, your only, or your fifth, a child leaving home is one of the most significant transitions in not only your child’s life, but in your life as well. Operating with intention during this time of challenge is critical in transforming a time of potential loss into an opportunity for growth.

How could you NOT be sad? Your strong feelings at the departure of your child are a testament to the bonds you’ve built over the years. We are connected to our children emotionally and viscerally, and just like the day you first went off to day-care or got on the bus for pre-school, the need for tissues is perfectly reasonable and normal!

Separation is a critical piece of your growth: Focus on the positive. Successful separations at each stage of development are important building blocks of adult identity. As Matthew McConaughey aptly illustrates in the movie “Failure to Launch,”a child who is not encouraged and supported in separating becomes a thirty-five year old drinking right out of the milk carton in his boxers.

You’ve done great work: Have faith that you have readied your son or daughter with the essential tools to navigate the challenges ahead. Trust also in the connection you have with your student. They will continue to rely upon in the times of greatest need.

You’re never too old to change and grow: Be honest with your son or daughter that you are working to navigate this major change in life as well. While your struggle need not be their central concern, modeling healthy coping can be a source of encouragement to your son or daughter. “This has been a big transition for me too. I really miss hearing about all of your sports, but I’m keeping busy and have decided to join the softball team at work and get involved myself.”

Get Support: Your son or daughter is going to be encouraged at every turn to get help when they need it. We would offer you the same. Times can be hard, and family relationships are complicated. A child going off to college may be one trigger on top of a pile of stressors. Identify your key resources–family, friends, clergy, co-workers, and possibly therapists. Talk about how you are feeling with supportive others, and make an action plan to help address the challenges and potential benefits of this new stage of life.