Thrive on Campus//

What Do Parents Need to Know About Their College Child’s Mental Health?

Parents can and should play an active role in their college child's mental health in order to achieve the best possible college experience.

Courtesy of Poring / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Poring / Shutterstock

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.

College is an exciting time for students and parents, but it can also be a critical time for your child’s mental health. Here are a few suggestions on how you can help safeguard your child’s mental health during this challenging and formative time.

Understanding mental health

Learn the basics about mental health conditions. The three most important concerns are depression and anxiety, and suicidal ideation — all are rising among college students. Seventy-five percent of all mental illnesses develop by age 24. There are many good online resources such as NAMI’s website. Essentially, closely watch for any change in their behavior — are they withdrawing, are their reactions to stressors disproportionate to the stressful events they are experiencing, and is their emotional health adversely impacting their day-to-day functioning? Also bear in mind that substance use may exacerbate a mental health condition, and we know that exposure to alcohol and drugs may increase during these years and potential problems may develop. Encourage your child to reach out to their college counseling office for help if they are showing signs of emotional distress. Suicidal ideation and suicide have reached alarming rates and require immediate action. A few signs of suicide risk include expressions of hopelessness, talking about self-harm, and talking about unbearable pain or being a burden. Minority, first-generation, and international students may also be at greater risk due to particular stressors that these groups may encounter.

Talking about mental illness

Share what you’ve learn about mental health with your child. Talk about it. It can be very helpful to share your own college experiences with your child so that they feel you can relate. Emphasize to them that you’ll always be there and support them. Let them know you may worry, but you’ll worry more if they don’t talk to you. Tell them it is common for college students to experience emotional distress and that they should not to be ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it if they have any concerns. There are two books you may find helpful: Campus Cure and The Stressed Years of Their Lives. Stay in touch with them as much as your child allows, especially when they are in distress. Most importantly, tell them if they ever experience thoughts of self-harm that they must contact emergency resources immediately, including their college’s counseling office. Under HIPAA, a counseling office must maintain the privacy of student treatment. Under FERPA, the counseling office may, but is not required to notify you of a serious mental health crisis or emergency. You should also urge them to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1.800.273.8255. Be firm.

On-campus resources

Know basic information before the school year start about on-campus mental health resources, including location, scheduling an appointment, drop-in service availability, after hour services, and access to peer support services. Learn if the college has wellness programs, which may offer self-care guidance and activities. Student mental health groups such as Active Minds (the leading college students’ grassroots mental health organization), the Steve Fund (the leading college students’ minority mental health organization), and The Jed Foundation (JED), the leading college mental health advisory and program development organization, may offer important support. 

Stressors a proactive approach

Stressors may trigger a mental health condition. The earlier potential stressors are identified, the sooner coping strategies may be developed to contain them. There are many stressors. The three key stressors for many students fall into three categories: loneliness, academic, and career. It is important to know possible stressors since your child may be more willing to discuss stressors than mental illness due to stigma. The Healthy Minds Network, the leading college student mental health academic research institute, is doing cutting-edge research in the area.

Resiliency

Resiliency is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties such as competitive environments, failure, setbacks, and disappointment. It is a valuable strength for combating the emotional impact of stressors. It can also be bred and developed as we face these sorts of challenges. Tell your child that it may take a little while to adjust to college life as is true for many college students and that they can bounce back from initial challenges. Tell them that no matter what, you’ll always be proud of them.

Loneliness

A majority of college students feel lonely. Let your child know how common it is. Encourage them to make new friends by participating in orientation activities, activities, and clubs. Again, stay in touch with them, especially during the first semester. Encourage them to call home. Suggest to them that they participate in self-care activities such as physical exercise, good nutrition, and athletics. Intramural sports is a great way to boost mental and physical health and connect with other students.

Academic performance

Academics is a key, and perhaps the greatest, source of stress for students. The high-school-to-college transition can be difficult. It is not uncommon to experience average-to-poor performance compared to high school, competition, imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and discouragement. Encourage your child to seek tutoring and to contact their college’s accommodations and disabilities office, which may provide them with very helpful academic support, should they qualify. Help them develop academic related coping skills before starting college and throughout such as stress management, time management, and problem solving. Grades may be a strong indicator of possible academic struggle so it may be helpful for your child to share them with you — they can give you permission to access their grades under FERPA. Provide extra support, if required and possible. Finally, emphasize with them the critical importance of good sleep hygiene. Tell them these strategies will help them achieve better grades, which is the ultimate objective of many students. However, if college stresses become overwhelming it may be best to consider taking a medical leave rather than dropping out as it may be more difficult to return in the latter case. A majority of college students who drop out of college do so for mental health reasons. There are many wonderful college re-entry programs to facilitate your child’s return to college such as Fountain House’s College Re-entry Program and others like it.

Career planning

Career planning can be a significant source of stress. It may start to intensify as your child considers internship opportunities. It could be highly beneficial to speak to a career office early on to explore options and understand hiring criteria such as course work, grades, work experience. You may also want to encourage your child to volunteer in an area of interest relevant to potential career goals, which may give them firsthand experience.

College can be an incredibly stressful time, but your help can be invaluable as your child transitions into adulthood. It is a time when your child can take more responsibility and ownership of their life decisions. But you can have a critical impact on their academic, career, and personal success by being an active participant and resource.

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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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