Thrive on Campus//

Heading to College? Don’t Forget Your Mental Health

These tips will help both parents and students prepare for the transition to college.

Courtesy of Westend61 / Getty Images
Courtesy of Westend61 / Getty Images

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

As summer approaches, many high school seniors may be gearing up to make the transition to college. This time in a young person’s life is one that is often full of many emotions — excitement, anticipation, nervousness, and wonder, to name a few. Bags are packed, goodbyes are said, roommates are met, and the journey begins. Students are often prepared for college with the line “these will be the best years of your life.” But for many, the transition to college can also bring about a variety of mental health challenges.

A survey completed by WebMD and The JED Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to promoting mental health and preventing suicide among teens and young adults, sheds light on the topic of mental health as it relates to incoming college students. The survey, which included participation from the parents/guardians of college-bound students as well as from first-year college students, explored the degree to which families communicated about mental health, as well as the degree to which mental health was a concern in selecting a college. The survey found that while issues like anxiety, depression, and mood disorders are on the rise, 42 percent of parents did not discuss mental health issues when helping their teens prepare for post-secondary education. Additionally, only 17 percent of parents reported campus mental health services as being a factor when selecting a school.

Despite this, however, college mental health centers are seeing a steady increase in the number of students who are seeking services, and the number of students entering college with mental health challenges is on the rise as well. According to data from the 2017 Annual Report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University, the number of college students attending counseling for mental health concerns has seen a steady rise over the past seven years (from 46 percent in 2010-11 to 52.7 percent in 2016-17). EVERFI’s national data set shows that 42 percent of incoming college students have felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, and 14 percent have seriously considered attempting suicide.

Dr. Laura Tsotsis, a clinical psychologist specializing in college student mental health, has provided counseling to hundreds of college students and suggests that students spend time preparing themselves emotionally for the college transition.

“The transition to college is not always as easy as students think,” she said. “Struggles can come in the forms of making new friends, leaving home, increased responsibilities, and academic pressure; just to name a few. Because there are many stressful and anxiety-provoking situations, it is important for students to build coping strategies prior to entering college. Try finding those activities that help combat negative emotional states, and create a calm and relaxed feeling. These strategies can be big or small and are different for everyone, so students need to find what works for them.”

The tips below have been designed to help both parents and students prepare for the transition to college.

Tips for Parents

Be mindful of your language: Opening up the dialogue about what students can expect can be a great first step towards having a meaningful conversation about mental health. While college is a wonderful time for many students, there is often a period of adjustment that can be challenging. When students enter college with the expectation that it will be the “best years” of their lives, the disappointment when it potentially isn’t can feel even more significant.

Instead, when discussing what college will be like, consider using statements that focus more on the strengths of the student, rather than the experience of college as a whole. For example, “your strong organizational skills will really help you balance your schedule,” or “people will be so lucky to get to know you.” By focusing attention on the strengths of the student, you can reinforce those strengths within them, and remind them of internal attributes that may be very valuable down the road.

Refrain from judgment: As students embark on the college journey, many are confronted with their first steps towards independence. For students over the age of 18, this means that their health care, including mental health, is also private information. It is natural that as a parent or loved one, a temptation may exist to want to control or manage how your student handles challenging situations, but it is important to allow your college student to find their own way. While it can be helpful to provide suggestions and guide them towards the appropriate resources, at the end of the day it is their decision to utilize them or not — and whether or not to share their progress with you. If your loved one comes to you with concerns, rather than immediately jumping in with advice try encouraging them to come up with a solution on their own. For example, ask “what resources do you think you have to help you solve this problem,” or “what would you tell a friend who was in the same situation.” By letting them know that you are there and listening without immediately offering advice, you may help to inspire their self-confidence and send the message that you are confident in them as well.

Find the right resources: Just as you may have spent time researching the academic and extracurricular merits of colleges, it can be worthwhile to also look at the social supports that exist at your loved one’s school of choice. A quick web search will likely allow you to explore the schools counseling center, health services, and policies related to important well-being issues like alcohol and other drugs and interpersonal violence. By familiarizing yourself with what your loved one’s school offers, you can help navigate conversations in the event that they reach out to you with some difficulties. Often, the most helpful on-campus resource for concerned family members is the Dean of Students Office, which usually oversees many aspects of student well-being.

Tips for Students

Spend time preparing: If college has always been a dream of yours, it’s likely that you’ve spent your entire life preparing yourself academically. You’ve done all of the coursework, taken all of the tests, filled out all of the paperwork, and written all of the applications. While the amazing feat of attending college is certainly something to be celebrated, it is also helpful to spend some time thinking about how you can prepare your mental health for the journey. Spend time reflecting on all of the emotions you may be experiencing. Think about the concept of “self-care” and start to explore ways that you can prioritize self-care at school. For many students, this can include going for a walk, exercising, journaling, calling a trusted friend, or listening to music. Explore the different emotions or challenges that you anticipate you may experience (i.e. feeling lonely, missing home, getting lost, having roommate conflict, balancing coursework and your social life) and try to come up with a plan for each in advance. You may need to tweak them, but knowing that a plan is in place can help you to feel that much more prepared.

Know your resources: You are probably already familiar with your school’s website (as well as the Facebook page, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter) — but have you spent time exploring the resources section of it? Spend some time looking at the various resources that your school offers — for example, a counseling center, a health office, a Dean of Students office, clubs related to well-being. By equipping yourself with those resources prior to going to school, you’ll know exactly where to go in the event that you end up needing them — or in the event that you need to refer a friend there.

Be kind to yourself: The college transition is just that — a transition. Over the course of your college career, you may change your major, change yourself, make friends, lose friends, and find interests that you didn’t know existed. The person that you enter college as may be quite different than the person you leave college as, and that is okay. During the process, it is important to recognize that self-compassion is one of the most critical skills that you can learn. By prioritizing your mental health as being just as important as your academics, being mindful of your own self-care, and reaching out if you need help, you can ensure that you are taking your well-being into your own hands.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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