Addressing Possibility of Mental Health Issues in College

Today’s teenagers are more stressed and anxious than ever before. Big life transitions, such as attending college, can place additional stress on a still-developing adolescent brain. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness and 80% of them feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, between Fall 2009 and Spring 2015, the number of students visiting counseling centers increased by an average of 30-40%, while enrollment increased by only 5%. Leaving home and entering a challenging academic environment is hard enough on a young person, but also dealing with a mental illness can take a toll on a student’s performance and wellbeing, resulting in poor grades, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, or dropping out.

To address these concerns, today’s article will offer some suggestions for how to prepare your teen before they leave for college and also for how to support your student while they are at college.

What Parents Should Do Before College

  • Ask open-ended questions. Try to have open conversations about how your teen is feeling and what they are worrying about. Teaching a teen how to recognize and name what they are feeling is the first step in instructing them in how to care for themselves emotionally. Additionally, it will allow you to provide reassurance in their specific areas of concern.
  • Remind them of strengths. Provide encouragement to your teen by listing their strengths, reminding them of past challenges they have overcome, and expressing confidence in their abilities.
  • Don’t try to “fix” everything. As a parent, most of us jump in at the first sign that our teen is distressed. We want to rescue our child from every negative event or feeling. Instead, try validating your teen’s feelings so that they feel understood. If they discuss a problem, ask if they want to brainstorm ways to solve it together, but don’t take over.
  • Practice mindfulness. The ability to be present in the moment and to be nonjudgmental towards yourself and others is an excellent way to reduce emotional intensity. Encourage your teen to stop to notice how they’re feeling internally, observe what’s around them and even take some deep breaths before deciding how best to handle a difficult situation.
  • Discuss self-care. If you haven’t already, you should talk to your teen about the impact our habits have on our mood and success. We are our best selves when we eat healthy, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and limit drugs and alcohol. Taking care of ourselves physically has a profound impact on how we feel mentally. Also discuss healthy coping skills for relieving stress, such as taking a walk, breathing exercises, journaling, exercising, reading, or doing a creative activity.
  • Discuss managing health. Now that your teen will be on their own, they need to know what to do if they injure themselves or get the flu or feel depressed. Provide your teen with a lesson in first aid, explanations of when to see a doctor, the signs of depression and other mental disorders, and a basic understanding of insurance information and how to fill prescriptions. Talk to your teen about setting up regular check-ups with their primary care physician, dentist, eye doctor, and/or other physicians and give your teen responsibility for setting up those appointments. Finally, explain that, once your teen turns 18, their healthcare information is private. If they want the doctor to be able to talk to you, they must give permission.
  • Familiarize your teen with college health services. Before your teen heads off to college, make sure they know where the college health services are and how to access them. There should be a counseling center for mental health issues, as well as a clinic for physical health issues, on campus.

What Parents Should Do After Their Teen Leaves for College

  • Stay connected. Set up a regular time to talk each week to find out what is going on in their lives. Don’t limit your communication to emails and texts. It’s easier to detect when something is bothering your child by listening to their voice or seeing them virtually than it is to interpret their mood via a text message. Use Zoom or FaceTime to keep the lines of communication open.
  • Invite communication. Your child may avoid sharing problems with you because they think they should be independent or they worry about burdening you. Explain that you can handle any problem they present to you. They can come to you day or night. 
  • Expect mistakes. It’s important that your child knows that you support them, no matter what. Have the attitude that mistakes are just part of life and we learn from them. Expecting a perfect GPA will harm your child’s emotional well-being.
  • Provide assistance when needed. If you suspect your college student is struggling with a mental health issue like depression or anxiety, be sure you do what you can to connect them with the proper resources at college. That might mean that you need to make a visit to the campus or reach out to the dean of students to get your teen help.

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