For Parents: Supporting Your College Freshman
My husband, my daughter and I recently moved the youngest member of our family into his freshman dorm, at a university far from home, where there are no familiar faces. Maybe your family also has a college freshman.
While this is an exciting time for these young people, let’s recognize that some students may need some help navigating this major life transition. It’s also important to know that many mental illnesses and substance use disorders emerge during the young adult years. Let’s not allow anything – not ignorance, not societal pressures for parents to “let go,” not stigma about mental illness or addiction – to get in the way of providing them with needed guidance.
Reaching out for help
I realize that discomfort and challenge can lead to growth. But, my hope is that my son, or your child, will seek help early if he is feeling overwhelmed by the stresses and changes in his life.
Her willingness to seek help and maintain an open dialogue has made all the difference for her, us and her friends. That openness has been destigmatizing for all.
When my daughter began college five years ago, she was under the care of a doctor for depression. However, we didn’t understand at that time that her depression was inadequately treated or that she had an anxiety disorder. She struggled emotionally that first semester until she received a proper diagnosis and care. In hindsight, we should have augmented her care plan when she arrived on campus. Her willingness to seek help and maintain an open dialogue has made all the difference for her, us and her friends. That openness has been destigmatizing for all.
Emerging mental health issues
Early diagnosis and treatment are critical when mental health issues emerge. Yet, only one third of young adults (age 18-25) with any mental illness received mental health services in the past year, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report .
The 2015 National College Health Assessment provides insight into the mental health issues facing college students. This survey of nearly 20,000 college students at 40 institutions revealed that in the prior 12 months:
- 1% felt overwhelmed by all they had to do
- 74% found it very difficult to handle academics, a career-related issue, grief, relationships, finances, etc.
- 8% felt things were hopeless at some point during this period
- 1% were diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition, substance abuse, addiction and/or a sleep disorder
- 6% seriously considered suicide
- 6% attempted suicide
Partnering with the school
The good news is that colleges have many counseling services on campus. During orientation, the administrators at my son’s university helped parents understand this development stage, offered suggestions, advertised school resources, and encouraged us to stay in touch with our children.
Yet, only one third of young adults (age 18-25) with any mental illness received mental health services in the past year.
While families and students can address this transition in various ways, I intend to be in touch with my son each week. During these conversations, I will:
- Listen when he expresses a concern, without trying to solve the issue and without judgment. I’ll express my confidence in his ability to address the issue.
- Help him maintain perspective and remember that he is not alone in whatever feelings or struggles he has. I will remind him how he has successfully handled past transitions.
- Remind him to take good care of his health. To eat regular and healthy meals, get good rest, exercise, make new friends, join clubs, etc.
- Encourage him to reach out to campus resources and his own support system if he needs help. I’ll watch for any unusual behavior and signs of distress, especially withdrawal, lack of motivation, apathy and intense sadness. If he is struggling to this extent, I’ll make sure that he gets the help he needs.
While I’m enthusiastic, I’m also wide-eyed about this significant transition in my son’s life. Yes, I have tremendous confidence in this young man’s strength and resilience, but I’m going to stay in touch.