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What College Students Sometimes Keep From Their Parents

Struggles with mental health issues often derail academic performance.

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Verne Ho / Unsplash
Verne Ho / Unsplash

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.

Last year, the American College Health Association conducted an anonymous survey of over 26,000 college students in 40 colleges to evaluate their health and behavior. The concerns of many health professionals were borne out in the data: When mental health suffers, so does schoolwork. Stress, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and depression are among the leading factors that wreak havoc on academic performance.

Stress, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and depression are among the leading factors that wreak havoc on academic performance.

Parents do not always know when their college students are suffering.

I’ve spent 18 years counseling students in distress who end up leaving college and returning home in search of stability and support. I often hear their parents say:

“After he told me how depressed he was, I felt so guilty; I wish I had gone up to visit more.”

“$60,000 later, we had no idea she wasn’t going to classes.”

“We had no idea how depressed she was until she told us she was suicidal.”

“He always got his work done in high school. We were shocked to hear that he wasn’t going to classes. How could this have happened?”

“We didn’t know the depth of the issues until we found out he was on academic probation.”

When the students begin therapy with me, they often discuss how isolated they felt during their struggles at college. These feelings can lead to clinical depression, which can be very dangerous.

Why don’t students tell their parents when they are sinking emotionally and academically?

Surprisingly, even though the quality of the parent-teen relationship is often strong, the students’ sensitivities can get in the way of sharing their challenges.

Deb Cohen, a seasoned psychotherapist at the University of Delaware counseling center, said, “It is rarely about lack of closeness. Many students don’t tell parents because they care about them worrying about them, also sometimes about judgment… Will they think less of me?”

My experience with students bears that out. A local sophomore who returned home with depression and severe anxiety told me, “I could never disappoint my parents, since they are supporting me with this great opportunity.”

Ironically, one of the biggest reasons students don’t share their difficulties is that their parents have always expressed pride in their accomplishments.

“They are afraid of losing that pride, and they can’t cope with the possibility that their parents may be disappointed,” Cohen said. Sometimes students don’t want to add to issues they feel their parents are already having at home, such as marriage, health, employment, or other mental health issues in the family.

“It’s not that uncommon for mental health problems to run in families, and when one kid is struggling, a sibling can pick up directly or indirectly from parents how relieved and proud they are that they are doing better,” Cohen explained.

“And sometimes they feel like their unhappiness isn’t very important compared with the more profound problems a sibling has.”

Downward spiraling can happen during the college transition

The reality is that the academic life and emotional life often become glued together. The worse students perform academically, the more anxious and depressed they can feel. The more anxious and depressed they feel, the deeper they can sink in academics. Or the social part of the experience may lead to depression and anxiety and this in turn may affect academics. In any case, it can be a spiral that is hard to face and climb out of without psychological guidance and academic support.

In addition, there is often stigma, embarrassment, and shame associated with emotional problems and academic failure that can accelerate the spiraling, particularly if students are too embarrassed to seek help. Some may not have historically talked with their parents about personal challenges.

They may have managed well themselves and/or sought advice and support from friends and others in their lives. Reaching out to parents when struggles arise at college may feel uncomfortable.

Even for students who communicated with their parents when living at home, it is so easy to “hide” from parents while away at college, not answering the phone or texting without revealing how they are doing. The longer the student hides, the more difficult it becomes to communicate with their parents.

How can parents help prevent or minimize the effects of spiraling?

  1. Help your children have realistic expectations about the college experience, including the challenges they may face.
  2. Become more informed through reading books written about the college experience, and discussing their own transition to college with current college students, can be helpful to teens and their parents.
  3. Normalize mental health issues, discussing anxiety, and depression, and learning about the professional resources that are available at the college they are attending.
  4. Share challenges you had at college and how you worked through them.
  5. Identify obstacles your teen has faced and how your teen was able to overcome them.
  6. Discuss the importance of resiliency and talk openly about the inevitability of bumps in the road.
  7. Learn about the difference between academic life in high school and college and become more realistic about what skills and demands are involved.
  8. Reinforce MANY TIMES they can come to you about anything and you will listen and help them figure out solutions.

If you have a history of difficulty talking about emotional issues, then it is crucial to begin a different style of communication this summer before they leave. Practice on issues that don’t have a huge impact, like concerns they might have about living with a roommate or which classes to choose, and always express confidence that they are capable of figuring it out.

Cohen also says parents and students need to understand that an A or B in college may reflect different things at different colleges and very different things from some high school classes.

It’s not always easy but parents need to listen without judgment, being careful about not saying anything that make their student feel criticized. Try to stay calm and take a breather for yourself before you start the conversation.

If they have had support in high school, definitely replicate it in their freshman year.

A student’s fantasy of starting over, being a different person and no longer requiring extra support needs to be dealt with realistically. Explore counseling, tutoring, and coaching services together before beginning college if these were part of their high school experience.

Encouraging discussion on all these topics and becoming knowledgeable about college resources can make all the difference in the emotional, social, and academic transition.

The Jed Foundation (JED) has a variety of excellent online resources, check out Set to Go, their transition guide.

For more information, check out my post on HuffPost, and The College Corner Facebook page.

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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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