Imagine that you’re moving to a new place. And starting a demanding job. And leaving behind your home, your family, and your friends. The stress of any one of these is gargantuan. Combined, they’re a potential emotional tsunami.
This is the scenario facing every freshman who goes off to college. Yet, these newbies are expected not only to adjust seamlessly, but to prevail socially and academically—and to provide evidence of their triumphs on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
Many kids jump right into the fray, and their excitement and energy are genuine. But for those struggling on some level, the majority, the expectation of being “happy” combined with the pressure to prove themselves on multiple fronts is overwhelming and can affect mood adversely.
Yet, it’s rare that I hear parents talk to kids about depression and anxiety before they go off to school. Maybe parents are reluctant to raise the subject when there is so much anticipation and excitement about starting college.
That’s a problem. The reluctance to discuss “freshman blues” reminds me of the silence surrounding “baby blues” before postpartum depression came out of the closet. When women had a newborn, they were supposed to approximate the gauzy image of the mom on the Ivory Snow box.
For college freshman, the equivalent image is the tailgating photo: the red Solo cup (wink!), the big smile, and the shot of a gang of kids with their arms around each other. In fact, social media can aggravate feelings of isolation because the posted photos present an idealized version of college life and make people who are struggling feel like failures.
Despite the hoopla in popular culture, freshman year is known among therapists as a time of vulnerability. Biologically, clinical depressive disorders often surface first in late adolescence. Environmentally, three tentpoles of healthy mood—sleep, healthy food, and exercise—go by the wayside in freshman year. Add to that the infusion of a chemical depressant, alcohol, and the mind boggles. Literally.
(Yes, they drank in high school. But binge drinking defines college parties. Most high school students would rather pass on the last few drinks than pass out at home.)
When kids do come clean about feeling down, many parents respond with pep talks about homesickness and how it will pass. Often it does. But when a down mood is downplayed, trouble may ensure, and it can snowball quickly.
One staggering statistic unknown to many parents: depression is the second highest cause of death in college-age young adults. Just as with postpartum depression, freshmen blues need a public airing with a focus on awareness and prevention.
· Talk to your kids about mental health and mood before they leave for school. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to share information about depression in the immediate or extended family.
· Find out where the campus counseling center is, and convey that a visit to a counselor is a positive move, not a defeat.
· Make it clear that it’s okay to feel stressed or overwhelmed.
· Make yourself available without hovering. Be prepared for some late night phone calls as kids navigate their first real separation from home. Handle your own anxiety about separation and resist the urge to “check in” every few hours, which can add to the pressure.
· Redefine success. If students can authentically be themselves, learn from mistakes, make a smart choice or cope with a difficult moment, that’s success. It’s not the “A” that announces success. It’s getting a C and having the gumption to make a better study plan.
· Curb your own social media. Parents use social media to hold up their child as a shining example of healthy adjustment to college—a good reflection on them.
A good rule of thumb: It’s not about you. And it’s not the time to engage in fantasies of success projected onto your kids. It’s about helping them separate successfully, fully prepared for the challenges as well as the rewards, of college life.