The transition from high school to college is exciting and marks a significant time in your child’s life. Attending college brings a new sense of adventure and independence for many students. But, for others, college life can bring new pressures, stressors and anxiety.
Mental health diagnoses among college students are increasing. According to the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative, approximately 35% of college freshman report symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder. Research shows that long-term mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, often appear during an individual’s teenage years to their early 20s, directly coinciding with college.
It’s not always easy to know how to navigate this season of life and there often are many questions about what you can do to help your student during these key developmental years, especially given the mental health challenges that can be associated with them. The reality is that while there is no “one size fits all” recommendation for assessing your student’s mental health, there are a few steps you can take to help support and monitor their behavior.
Stress is normal, but watch for warning signs
Some amount of stress in college is normal and can be expected. The pressure is on for students, and it’s healthy to feel some level of stress or worry, especially about things like significant academic deadlines. If your student has an upcoming exam or oral presentation, they’ll likely experience some anxiety, but their sense of burden should be alleviated once the stressor has passed.
If he or she continues to note extreme stress post-exam, and practical solutions like getting more sleep or joining a study group don’t seem to be working, it may be a warning sign of a more concerning mental health challenge.
When, and how, to step in
If you sense something more serious may be going on with your student, it can be hard to step in. As a parent, you want to encourage autonomy and independence – it’s important for both of you! Because your student is still developing mentally, emotionally and psychologically, parental involvement can be key to early identification and support.
It’s not always easy to strike the right balance between allowing your student to navigate challenges and intervening when you detect there may be a problem, but it can be very important to your student’s mental health.
Families that have created an open space to discuss mental health challenges with their student may be able to detect early warning signs like extreme, unnecessary stress or despondent feelings. Recognizing a potential challenge as early as possible can lead to earlier evaluation and treatment – both of which often result in better health outcomes for your student.If you notice concerning behavior, or believe that your student might need help, it could be time for you to intervene and recommend additional support from a health care professional. Late adolescent and college age mental illnesses can include more serious diagnoses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. We know that acting quickly in these situations is key, as research points to the importance of early intervention when navigating a mental health challenge.And students who receive these diagnoses will need support. The health center on your student’s campus may be a great place to start and will be aware of additional, off-campus resources, should they be necessary.
Life after diagnosis
If your student receives a serious mental illness diagnosis, it can be overwhelming and it’s understandable to feel a range of emotions. But you are not alone, and neither is your student. In fact, by the age of 25, more than 75% of those who will be diagnosed with a mental illness have experienced their first onset. An entire community focused on mental health exists to help you find the support you need.
There are countless resources available for you and your student, especially during the college years. It’s often helpful for you, as a member of your student’s care team, to be open to a wide variety of available support and treatment options. As an advocate for your student, you can educate yourself on the many choices that could be helpful. Though a provider will recommend what is most appropriate for your student’s health based on his or her individual needs, there are many options to consider such as the use of daily medications, long acting injectables (LAIs), case management, talk therapy and more.
Consider accessing screening tools, treatment locators, and other educational materials from organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHC) or The Jed Foundation. These resources, combined with early intervention and the right treatment plan, can assist in providing your student with the support they need to get well and reach their goals.
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Dr. Frank Chen is a practicing psychiatrist in Houston, Texas, who also specializes in Adult Psychiatry. He graduated from Saint Louis University School of Medicine in 1998 and completed a residency at Baylor College of Medicine in 2002. Dr. Chen is the Chief Medical Officer at Houston Behavioral Healthcare Hospital and Houston Adult Psychiatry.