Mental Health in College Students: A Guide for Families and Friends

lonely college student

Mental Health in College Students: A Guide for Families and Friends

Published September 11, 2023

lonely college student

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.

Mental Health in College Students Statistics

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.

27.5% 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 and 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.

Discussing Mental Health With College Students

Here are discussion points for conversations with students or others.

1. Starting college is exciting but can cause anxiety and other stress- related problems.

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 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. 

Mental Health Warning Signs at College

How can a parent identify the symptoms?

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 of High School Seniors

For parents with kids heading off to college in the fall – August comes around sooner than you might think! 

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.

Another suggestion for what parents need to know:

Everything parents should know about college mental health, but don’t

Common Mental Health Challenges for College Students

The transition to college can be both an exciting and daunting period in a young person’s life. As students strive to balance academic demands with new-found independence, they may encounter several mental health challenges.

This section aims to shed light on some of the most common mental health issues that college students may face, fostering greater awareness and understanding among readers.

Anxiety

Anxiety, characterized by persistent worry and fear, is quite prevalent among college students. The pressures of maintaining grades, social relationships, and stepping into adulthood can sometimes exacerbate anxiety levels. Families should encourage students to seek help if they find anxiety interfering with their daily activities.

Depression

Depression is another common mental health challenge faced by many college students. It can manifest as persistent sadness, a loss of interest in activities, or changes in sleep and appetite. Early detection and appropriate intervention can be crucial in managing depression effectively.

Stress

The college environment can be a breeding ground for stress due to various academic and extracurricular demands. Chronic stress can lead to other mental health issues if not managed effectively. Students should be encouraged to develop healthy coping mechanisms, such as engaging in hobbies or mindfulness practices.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, can sometimes develop or become exacerbated during the college years. These disorders often require specialized treatment and support. Families should be vigilant for signs of eating disorders and encourage open dialogues about healthy eating habits.

Substance Abuse

College students are at a higher risk of experimenting with substance use, which can sometimes escalate to substance abuse. Awareness about the harmful effects of substance abuse and information on where to seek help can be crucial in preventing addiction issues.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders, including insomnia, can be common among college students, often fueled by irregular schedules and academic pressures. Encouraging a regular sleep pattern and creating an environment conducive to quality sleep can be beneficial steps in combating sleep disorders.

Loneliness and Homesickness

Many students may experience feelings of loneliness and homesickness, especially those moving away from home for the first time. Building supportive networks and staying connected with family can help alleviate these feelings.

Relationship Issues

Navigating new relationships can be another challenge during college years. Open communication about relationship dynamics, consent, and healthy boundaries can be instrumental in fostering positive relationships.

Tips for Families of Students Having Mental Health Issues

Navigating the transitional phase of college can be a challenging time for students. As a family member, your support can be a pillar of strength during this period. Here are several strategies and tips that families can employ to support their loved ones experiencing mental health issues:

  • Educate Yourself on Mental Health Issues: Gaining knowledge about the various aspects of mental health can be a cornerstone in providing effective support. As a family member, it’s important to understand the different manifestations of mental health issues and how they can affect college students.
  • Understand the Signs: Learn about the common signs and symptoms that might indicate a student is struggling with mental health issues, enabling you to offer timely assistance.
  • Keep Communication Lines Open: Fostering a climate of open communication can be a vital step in offering support.
  • Actively Listen: Practice active listening when they communicate, showing genuine interest and understanding without imposing judgment or offering unsolicited advice.
  • Seek Professional Help: It might be necessary to guide your loved one to seek professional assistance. Assist them in finding a suitable therapist or counselor who specializes in addressing the unique pressures faced by college students.
  • Emergency Procedures: Be prepared with an action plan in case of an emergency. Maintain a list of important contacts, including friends and college support services, to ensure swift action if necessary.
  • Collaborate with College Resources: Families should aim to collaborate with available resources in college for a more rounded support system.

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Other Articles You Might Like:

Supporting College Student Mental Health

The Decline of College Student Mental Health and What Parents Can Do About It

Evalutate the Mental Health Support of a College

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