As a parent who has just finished the college admissions process with your student, you probably feel maxed out on advice. Instead, you’ve moved on to new discussion topics like handling roommate conflicts, managing money and dealing with new academic challenges. But most likely the one subject you feel least comfortable talking about is mental health. Whether it is because of a lack of knowledge or stigma or the hope that mental health problems just won’t affect your kid, you may think mental health is too delicate a subject to tackle. But tackle it you should.
Why Talk About Mental Health?
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 75% of lifetime cases of mental health conditions begin by age 24. Just as teens are leaving home to navigate a new academic, social and emotional environment, their mental health is also at its most vulnerable. 30% of all college students, according to an American College Health Association study, felt so depressed they found it difficult to function during the school year. Sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age youth – with over 1,100 deaths per year.
Parents, be both informed and realistic – it is likely that your son or daughter will experience a mental health problem or will have a friend or roommate experience a mental health problem during his or her college years. So just as you had the “birds & the bees” talk with your young child to de-mystify the process by which babies are born –now is the time to have another talk, an open and frank conversation with your young adult about mental health.
Here’s what you might want to say.
1. Starting college is exciting but can cause anxiety & other stress related symptoms.
The symptoms of most mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, are likely to emerge between ages 18 to 24. The overlap between the emergence of the first symptoms of Mental Illness and the early adulthood years is not a coincidence. Scientists at the National Institute on Mental Health believe that Mental Illness may be a product of 3 things – your genes, the environment and human development.
For reasons scientists are still figuring out, the genes you are born with interact with your environment as you grow and then your developing brain in early adulthood. It may be reassuring to tell your teen there is a scientific reason that symptoms of Mental Illness tend to emerge in the same time period when kids are getting ready for college, are in school or have recently graduated.
2. Mental illness is like other illnesses – it can be diagnosed and treated.
Mental Illness is just that – an illness, something that can be diagnosed and treated. It can range from mild, to moderate, to severe. Yet it is a hidden illness – with symptoms that may appear all once or more gradually over time, such as – anxiety, confused thinking, difficulty concentrating, highs or lows in mood, changes in eating habits, increased or decreased need to sleep, sadness, isolation or withdrawal from previously enjoyable activities.
The aggregate of symptoms and behavior can help a qualified professional diagnose a mental illness, and recommend treatment such as medications, therapy or often, a combination of both, and other non-medical, stress-reduction measures as well.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The best treatment is to get help early.
A NAMI survey of college students in 2012 showed the most common diagnoses reported by students were depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety. Other conditions include adhd, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and substance abuse.
Mental Illness may come in duos or trios – what the professionals call co-occurring disorders – so it is not unusual for a student to have both anxiety and ADHD or an eating disorder combined with OCD. But what all forms of Mental Illness have in common is that the earlier a student gets treatment, the better. Most young adults who seek and receive mental health treatment early are able to lead fully functional and productive lives and will stay in college and graduate.
Parents – emphasize to your students that they should get help early! Mental Illness does not get better the longer you wait to treat it.
How will I know if my student is experiencing mental illness symptoms away at College?
Here’s the short answer: Parents may be the last to find out.
Studies show that a student with mental health concerns turns first to his or her friends. Having peer support is important. Even better is if the peer encourages your student to talk to an adult.
Tell your son or daughter that if they feel depressed or anxious, have feelings or behaviors that are concerning, they should talk with an adult to get advice. Talk to Mom and Dad first, but if that feels uncomfortable, they should talk to someone: a dorm advisor, a professor, or go to the student psychological services & counseling center (CAPS) on campus.
For parents with kids heading off to college in the fall – August is not far away! Have the “Mental Health” talk with your student – and have it soon. Let them know the facts and that they and their friends are not alone.
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Nancy Wolf is a lawyer with experience as a parent coach, young adult mental health advocate, and college counselor. She is a graduate of Smith College, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, and George Washington University Law School. Nancy works with parents, of young adults with mental health conditions, to plan for college and manage mental health challenges while in college. As a parent of a young adult who has had mental health challenges for a number of years, Nancy has personal experience dealing with these issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.