Transitioning to college can be one of the most emotionally jarring, vulnerable moments in a young person’s life.
They are suddenly away from all they have ever known or are familiar with, and must navigate this new landscape virtually on their own. Seemingly overnight, college students become responsible for everything from waking themselves up for class, to managing their money, to dealing with sometimes dicey social situations.
It’s no wonder that underlying mental health issues can become exacerbated during the college years. Even kids who have never had to tend to their mental health before may find themselves struggling for the first time in college.
The transition isn’t easy for parents either. College-age kids may look like grown-ups — and they are blooming and growing in many profound ways — but they are also still our babies, and it can be hard to parent them from a distance, especially if we suspect that they are struggling emotionally.
College mental health should be taken as seriously as maintaining a passing GPA or landing a great summer internship. If you are reading this article, you likely recognize that, which is a stellar first step.
Rest assured, although you aren’t with them, there are many things you can do to nurture your college student’s mental health.
1. Research Mental Health Services Available At Your Child’s College
All colleges have counseling departments with counselors and psychologists on hand who will provide mental health counseling — often for free. Even before your child begins school, you can contact the college’s counseling department to find out how services are offered, and how to reach out if you think your child is in need of these services.
Sometimes a student who is feeling overwhelmed has trouble even learning what resources are out there, so doing that research or them can be a good preventative measure. You may also be able to ask the counseling department for advice for yourself about how to parent your child through whatever they’re struggling with.
And, while you can’t force your teen to see a counselor, you can provide a flexible, convenient therapy option that meets them on their own terms — or their own smartphone. Online therapy offers all the benefits of brick-and-mortar therapy, but is delivered via text, audio, or video message or live video. No matter what challenges your child faces at college, or how you worry when they’re going back to school, you’ll know that they have the support of a licensed therapist at their fingertips.
2. Learn Signs And Symptoms Of Mental Health Disorders
Even at a distance, parents often get an inkling if they think their child is struggling. Parental instincts are strong and should be listened to. But it’s also important to make sure you learn the signs of the mental health issues your child may be facing, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse disorder, and others. The National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association are both trusted sources, and great places to go for information. College might be the first time your student is exposed to sexual assault and harassment, making sure they know the warning signs, how to get help, and how they can look out for their peers can be extremely powerful.
In addition, it’s imperative that you familiarize yourself with the signs of suicidal ideation. Suicide is a growing problem among college students, with as many as 1 in 5 college students reporting suicidal thoughts in any given year. If you suspect your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the college counseling department right away. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) if you think your child is in immediate danger.
3. Engage In An Ongoing Mental Health Dialogue With Your Child
Being open about mental health — framing it as a common, everyday topic — is vital. Our kids need to know that mental health is something we all struggle with at one time or another, that feelings are not something to be ashamed of, and that seeking help for mental health is as normal as going to the doctor for a physical.
Talking about mental health should be an ongoing conversation — not just one sit-down discussion that is never brought up again. Weaving mental health talk into normal life may feel awkward at first, but even if your teen seems uninterested, they are listening. All of us, especially adolescents, have a lot going on in our emotional worlds, and knowing that our parents understand this is a huge benefit for a young person.
4. Encourage A Healthy Lifestyle
Let’s face it: college kids don’t always practice the best self-care. They may brag of their ability to spend a semester ingesting approximately zero fruits or vegetables. Without a schedule or screen time restrictions, they may become extremely sedentary. And we all know the risks of binge drinking or drug experimentation. Drinking can mess with brain chemistry and be used as a band-aid fix to other problems in your students’ life
Unhealthy habits can exacerbate any mental health challenges your college kid is dealing with. But we walk a fine line as parents. We want to offer guidance, but we’ve got to have realistic expectations about what we can accomplish. Sometimes if we say something like, “Don’t drink ever, at all!” our kids will only want to do it more, to spite us.
Positive, affirming encouragement usually works much better. Pointing out the good health decisions they’ve made, pointing out their overall strengths, and offering to listen to their struggles (rather than offering advice) usually goes a long way.
5. Make Sure Your Child Knows They Have Options
Most kids will adjust well to college, even if they struggle with their mental health along the way. However, sometimes a certain college is not the right fit for your child. Other kids might need to change academic tracks to be happy. Or maybe your college student landed in the wrong social group, one that doesn’t fit their personality or sensibilities.
It’s really important to send the message to your teen that they have options. The college experience can be very overwhelming, and part of what contributes to many instances of depression or anxiety is the feeling that “it will always be this way.” Your child may also feel like they have failed in some way if they can’t stick things out and get through whatever is difficult.
Life is about making decisions that work for you, whatever that looks like. Sending your child the message that you will support the decisions they need to make for their mental well-being is a true gift you can bestow on them — one that will set them up for an empowered, fulfilling life.
As a parent, your concerns about your college student’s mental health are justifiable. All the profound and exciting changes they are experiencing can be emotionally challenging. Acknowledging that is half the battle, and as a parent, there are many ways you can support your child’s mental health, even from many miles away.
Keep in mind that your most important job is to do what you’ve always done for your child: support them, remind them of their gifts, and love them unconditionally.