A Parent’s Guide to College Mental Health

Published on: 23 Aug 2017
Asian mom daughter holding college books near car

I remember the transition to college as one of the most emotionally challenging times of my life. I wanted all the freedom and intrigue I knew college could offer me, yet I still felt very much like a child. Suddenly being out on my own felt jarring.

I was not alone, according to Amanda Rausch, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). Rausch says the transition from home life to college life isn’t easy for most college kids. In fact, explains Rausch, the transition can be experienced like a series of losses for your college-bound child.

“They leave their home, regular schedule, high school relationships, and even pets they have grown up with…it is a lot to process!” Rausch also mentioned the huge decisions young people are responsible for during college. “They experience the adjustment of being on their own, figuring out finances, new classes, new people, new places and, oh yeah, the decision of what to study, which determines their career and the rest of their lives!”

Unsurprisingly, this amount of upheaval can lead to mental health issues for college students — especially because, as Rausch points out, college is not exactly a place where self-care is practiced on a regular basis. “It can be hard to eat right, work out, and get enough sleep,” she says. “Also, relationships in college are quick to form and become intense very fast…and relationships that begin quickly, can end quickly. So there are many factors that exacerbate or even cause mental health issues.”

As Melissa Fenton, writer and mother of four rightly points out, the model for dealing with new and difficult emotions in college isn’t often the healthiest one. “Typically young adults this age, especially if they’ve never experienced feelings like that before, will ‘treat’ it with alcohol or other illegal substances,” says Fenton. “Their knee jerk reaction is NOT to go to the student counseling center, but to numb them in a way that is not only easily accessible, but for the most part, totally acceptable — because everyone drinks in college, right?”

All of this can be extremely stressful for parents, and it is normal to feel like you want to do everything in your power to help your children. The goal, of course, is to help your child learn how to be independent, and not rely too heavily on parental involvement to solve problems. But on the other hand, you don’t want to leave your child in the dark, especially if you become concerned your child might be facing a mental health issue.

Tips For Supportive Parents

So what’s a parent to do, and how can a parent strike a good balance of letting go, but also being appropriately involved?

Rausch has some helpful pointers.

1. Ask questions, but keep them simple

Parents can ask questions to access their child’s mental health without being too “nosy.” Ask how their classes are going. Ask if they are making friends, and if they are eating well. Look for personality and mood changes. You know your child well, and even surface-level phone calls usually help you glean whether something is wrong.

2. Be available, but let our child call the shots in terms of how frequently to communicate

Parents might want to maintain daily contact and communication with their kids, but it’s important to remember that college life is different than life back home, and you might need to give your child more space than you are accustomed to. You can make it clear to your child that you are available, but it is probably best to let your child decide how often to communicate. And remember that most kids these days prefer texting over phone calls. Don’t worry: texting counts too!

3. Follow your child on social media to get a sense of how they are doing

It doesn’t need to be “stalking” per se. But sometimes pictures are worth a thousand words, so checking in on your child’s social media accounts can give you a sense of whether or not they look well and happy.

4. If you suspect your child is dealing with a mental health issue, visit them

If you suspect your child is dealing with a mental health issue, you may need to visit them to get the full picture. So do it if you can. It is always better to be safe than sorry, especially if you believe your child may be in the middle of a mental health crisis.

5. Help your child locate mental health care options nearby

Remember that your child is a relatively “new” adult, and may need intervention to get necessary help. If your child is dealing with something like anxiety or depression, the mental health issue itself might be enough to stop them from being able to locate a mental health professional. Your child’s college should have mental health facilities, but if there is a long wait list, for example, you might need to help find your child outside professional help. It’s always good to present your child with more than one option so they feel like they have some say in the matter.

More than anything, you want to make it clear to your child that you are there to help. It can be hard not to get too emotionally bent out of shape if your child is suffering, but as much as possible, you want to be clear that you are not judging them for the emotions they are experiencing. Let them know it is normal for college students to find the adjustment difficult, and that they are not weak or “crazy” for feeling the way they do.

“The key is prevention, rather than crisis intervention whenever possible,” says Rausch. And while you can’t guard your child against every mental health issue that might crop up, honoring your child’s feelings and offering helpful resources can go a long way in helping to prevent any mental health issues from becoming exacerbated.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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