For a long time, therapists have noticed a growth in mental health issues among students. This anecdotal observation was recently confirmed by the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), a nationally recognized research survey that collects data about students’ health habits, behaviors and perceptions. Some of the statistics from the NCHA’s most recent survey of college students are staggering:

  • 1/3 reported that depression was making it difficult to function
  • 1/2 reported “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year
  • Over 30% of students who sought mental health services reported seriously considering suicide at some point in their life

For many families, college can be the first time where a child lives away from their family. Even in the best circumstances, this transition can be difficult. Even the most resilient and independent child can become homesick or feel down.

For parents, the challenge is trying to determine whether their child’s struggle is part of a natural transition process or a sign of something more serious. Here are some signs to look for as you try to make that determination:

  • Changes in contacting you – if your student starts calling home every day or stops calling for long periods of time, check in about this change.
  • Changes in coming home – if your child wants to come home every weekend, doesn’t want to return to school or indicates that he/she doesn’t want to come home for a holiday, ask if there is a problem.
  • Not participating in any groups or activities – every student needs to study, but they should also have outside interests and social outlets.  If you notice your student doesn’t have these outlets, check in about being isolated or stressed 
  • Academic difficulty – this tends to be a sign of struggle if your student has stopped completing assignments or is getting low grades.
  • Gut feeling – as a parent, you can often sense when something is wrong and you should trust that intuition and let your child know about your concern.

Depending on the level of concern and how much your child’s functioning is impaired, they may benefit for seeking mental health services. Some services may available through their school, while other may be available outside of the school setting. Here are a couple of tips:

  • Know the services available – find out what the college counseling center offers.  Some have long waiting lists or session limits, so it may not be the best choice if ongoing support is needed.
  • Locate private providers – college counseling centers often have lists of private therapists in the community that they use as referral sources or you can look on-line to find therapists close to campus. 
  • Create a plan – with your student, determine who will make the call and how you will continue to check in to make sure the services are helping.  More intensive services or a leave of absence might be necessary in severe cases.
  • In an emergency – if a student is suicidal or wants to hurt someone, then call 911.  Take these threats seriously and respond immediately.

College is an exciting experience, but it also comes with many challenges that can overwhelm teens who are on their own for the first time or have a history of mental health issues.  Finding the support they need as early as possible can make a difference in their ability to stay at school and improve quality of life.