June 22, 2022

By John MacPhee, MPH and Katherine Ponte, CPRP

Parents stand next to college student

Young adulthood is a complex time marked by growing independence and personal responsibility. It is also a time of apprehension for both young people and their caregivers. For parents, it can be easy to write off their teens’ challenges during this time as “angst” or “just a part of growing up” — and they may not recognize serious distress or signs of an emerging mental illness. Recognizing and correcting this misstep is critical, particularly before teens go to college, which can be a high-risk time for many reasons.

Understanding and appropriately anticipating mental health risks to college-bound teens is critical for parents to address any issues that arise. For those sending a child off to college, make sure to keep the following in mind.

Help Your Child Find the Right College for Them

Perhaps the most proactive way to support your child’s mental health in college is to help them find the “right” school. This requires consideration of personal, emotional and social factors — including distance from home, size of the school, access and responsiveness of support services, the emotional-social climate on campus and your child’s personality and needs.

When students find a school that aligns with their values and needs, they are more likely to reap the benefits of attending college: finding a passion, meeting new people and graduating with better career options. A poor college fit, however, is more likely trigger certain mental health issues. For teens who don’t know where to begin, The Jed Foundation offers an online quiz to help students assess fit.

As a parent, your role is to encourage your children to fully assess their college options to find the school that will best support their social, emotional and academic needs. During college tours, you may want to learn about on-and off-campus mental health resources, including provider availability (especially given shortages and treatment options) and insurance coverage.

You will also want to prepare your teens for college-related stressors they may experience, regardless of school fit. Discussing potential challenges — and highlighting that challenges are a common part of the college experience — is a good place to start.

Proactively Look for Warning Signs

Given that 75% of mental illnesses begin by age 24, symptoms of mental health conditions may emerge during the college years. Unsurprisingly, then, more than 30% of college students were diagnosed or treated for anxiety, and 22% for depression, in the last 12 months.

The emergence of symptoms often has an impact beyond emotional challenges; of the students diagnosed with depression or anxiety, more than 50% experience adverse academic impacts due to their condition. You can be proactive in supporting your children’s health by learning the warning signs of mental health conditions (depression and anxiety, in particular) which often include hopelessness, dramatic change in behavior and withdrawal or social isolation. Given the strong connection between mental health and academic performance, it can also be helpful for parents who are concerned about their child’s mental health to have access to grades under FERPA (which requires your child’s permission).

Provide Emotional Support and Model Healthy Coping Skills

Perhaps the most important way to support your child’s mental health is by providing emotional support. Young adults are most likely to succeed in their new environment if they’ve built self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence and resilience — skills that you can help them build through affirmation and modeling healthy self-talk.

A few approaches to model or teach this behavior include: demonstrating empathy and compassion, having and showing gratitude in response to challenges and reframing negative situations. Having these skills and knowing they have the support of their families will help students cope with other stressors, such as building relationships, academic pressures (which can be the greatest source of stress) and career planning.

Other important skills you can help your child learn and develop during their college years, include independent living, smart decision-making about safety, time management and stress management.

Practice Honest (and Strategic) Communication

When you want to know more about your child’s life, especially if you’re concerned about their well-being, you’ll want to carefully assess what topics to bring up, how to bring them up and when to talk about them. Anticipating and discussing the stresses of on-campus life can be very helpful. For those who have a loved one living away from home, a communication contract can help. This agreement could include an agreed video call schedule and preset topics of discussion.

Other ways to facilitate frequent communication include encouraging children to come home, having scheduled family get togethers and urging your children to maintain social connections with hometown friends, extended family members and even local counselors. Making on-campus visits also provides an opportunity to keep up.

Ideally, you will have trusting relationships with your children that allow you to facilitate discussions regarding any concerns. A trusting relationship — one in which you can comfortably bring up mental health concerns — requires a solid foundation; You should reassure your children that you are “always there for them” if they would like to speak.

If you notice any signs of distress or emerging mental illness, whether at home or on campus, you should reach out to your child. Calm, clear and honest communication is essential; give your child the opportunity to share their concerns first, and you’ll want to find common ground and explain your concerns. Naturally, these discussions may be difficult if your child is trying to assert their independence and maintain control. But establishing open communications and learning to compromise can be critical to healthy relationships.

Educate Yourself on Available Resources

When your child leaves for school, you’ll want to have an idea of what resources and mentors will be available to them (and possibly your family). Nearly every university has a disabilities and accommodations office, which grants eligible students with disabilities accommodations that can facilitate the completion of school work. These include extra time to complete assignments and exams and tutoring. They also handle medical leave requests, should this be necessary.

Parents and caregivers can play a critical role in noticing that their college student may be struggling. Most importantly, they will play a critical role in supporting their children through those mental health challenges to ensure they can flourish during the college years.
Katherine Ponte is happily living in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder. She’s the Founder of  ForLikeMinds’ mental illness peer support community, BipolarThriving: Recovery Coaching and Psych Ward Greeting Cards. Katherine is also a faculty member of the Yale University Program for Recovery and Community Health and has authored ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights. She is on the NAMI-NYC Board.

John MacPhee, MBA, MPH is the CEO of JED. He is passionate about supporting young adults in their transition to adulthood. John advises several organizations including the S. Jay Levy Fellowship for Future Leaders at City College, Trek Medics, Crisis Text Line, the Health Policy and Management Department at the Mailman School of Public Health and HIV Hero. John received The Allan Rosenfield Alumni Award for Excellence in the field of public health from the Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. 


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