Dear Readers, I am just like you—a proud, tired, and often worried parent of two kids teetering on the brink of adulthood.
My daughter just graduated from a highly selective liberal arts college. She once told me, “I am majoring in my own sanity.” And over her undergraduate years, she studied through bouts of severe anxiety, producing a thesis that earned her high honors in disability studies and her first professional job.
My son, still giddy from his senior prom, is newly enrolled at a large state university that gave him a great scholarship. After months of supporting him through college applications, exhaustive campus visits, and dozens of inscrutable forms, I can finally sit back and watch him fly, right?
Not quite. Along with his extra-long sheets, his skateboard, and his computer, I need to help him pack the social and emotional tools that will help him thrive on campus.
I am not a therapist or physician, but with a family history of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, I know neither of my kids is out of the woods yet. Before he goes to college, before your child leaves, too, it’s time to talk frankly and proactively about mental health in college.
Dawn Rendell, assistant dean of students for the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University says, “Kids need to know that college is going to be overwhelming for everyone at some point. The worst thing is when your child calls out of the blue and they’re crying over the phone and you don’t have the answer.”
She recommends that parents share the facts about mental health with students ahead of time, engage in a dialogue, and explore the college’s resources together so that both know who to contact if a crisis comes calling.
The facts about mental health in college
The first message parents need to give students is that stress and mental illness often show up first at college, when students are grappling with their first prolonged stretch of real independence.
- According to a 2018 report from the American College Health Association, more than 60 percent of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. Over 40 percent said they felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning.
- In a study of more than 67,000 college students, more than 20% said they experienced stressful events in the past year that were strongly associated with mental health problems, including harming themselves and or attempts.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death in this age group.
- Of all lifetime mental illness, 50% begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24.
For many children, college is the first time they experience sharing a room or balancing their own academic and social commitments. The first six weeks of freshman year can feel frighteningly free. It’s tempting to think that going to lots of parties will increase your popularity. In fact, the opposite is true. Freshmen who give in to the social pressure to binge drink and party hard are especially vulnerable to unexpected and tumultuous consequences for their mental health.
Establishing a healthy adult lifestyle that anchors academic learning (it’s your job!) in a supportive social network is a high priority in the first semester. Joining clubs or campus activities that create opportunities to get involved in person (not just online) is one of the best things freshmen can do to jumpstart emotional wellness. Eating regular meals, getting enough sleep, and exercising (especially exercising with friends) demonstrates maturity, independence, and self-compassion.
It’s okay to ask for help
Many college students wrongly conclude that asking for help will brand them as a failure. Accessible resources and hearing other college students tell their stories of dealing with mental illness will help reduce the stigma of mental illness and encourage students to seek support.
Jenna Scott, a clinical psychologist with the Jed Foundation, which promotes emotional health and suicide prevention among college students, recommends that parents and students discuss common stumbling blocks in the first semester of college. Explore the college’s website together and identify resources and key support personnel. These might include services like the campus tutoring center or the student employment office. They should also include how to make an appointment for a physical or mental health concern, including adjusting or refilling any medications the student is taking.
The Jed Foundation provides a detailed guide for parents and students that includes questions to ask about the services and programs a college provides to help students manage their mental health and thrive in the campus environment. You can find information about many university health services by searching for the university name on Ulifeline.org.
Know when and how to intervene
Even when strong channels of communication have been established early, newly independent college students may be reluctant to reach out for help on their own. Scott encourages parents to pay attention to significant changes in a child’s behavior during the first six weeks of school, such as not sleeping, a constantly sad tone of voice, or not mentioning any friends or social activities.
A sudden change in the frequency of calls or texts may also be cause for worry. If parents are concerned, they should call the school’s student affairs or counseling office. Even though, for students over age 18, school officials may not be able to report on a student’s health without consent, they will be able to listen, get the parents’ perspective, and follow through with appropriate interventions.
Annalee Kwochka, my daughter, who is a former residence hall counselor at Davidson College, notes that often
It’s a roommate or a parent or a professor who starts an inquiry about a student’s well-being. Parents need to know that sudden anxiety or depression might be a sign that some trauma has happened. If you notice that, you need to really listen and help that person get the support he or she needs.
Make a plan to manage and thrive
Finally, for students who already have a diagnosed mental health condition or are diagnosed in college, your discussion should focus on making a clear plan for successfully managing the daily challenges of college life and for responding appropriately to the occasional crisis.
The plan should include:
- decisions about how to supply, resupply, and monitor medications.
- an agreed upon list of contact numbers.
- decisions about who to disclose your illness and health history to, and when.
- a clear understanding of supports and accommodations for which the school is responsible, usually through its disability services.
- investigation of the college’s policies regarding leaves of absence (including financial and legal implications for students and parents.)
- finding out when the school will and won’t contact parents to discuss a child’s mental health, and how you can manage the flow of information to best support your child. This includes finding out how FERPA and HIPPA laws impact families of students with mental illness.
I am here for you
Perhaps more than anything else, students in an emotional crisis need someone to believe them, listen to them, and support them. Talking about mental health can be scary and awkward at first. It’s likely to raise questions that may lead to some uncertainty, difficult choices, or revelations of issues you weren’t even aware of. To lay a strong foundation for future conversations that arise when the stress is on, end with three unambiguous declarations of love:
- I will believe you.
- I will not judge you.
- I support your independence. And I can help you help yourself by providing accurate information, resources, and compassion.
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Anne Vilen is an education writer and mom still learning and worrying from her home in Asheville, North Carolina.