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By Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Ph.D. and Active Minds
Mental health issues are far more common than most people realize. Fifty percent of us will encounter a mental health challenge in our lifetime!
Unfortunately, the group least likely to seek help are young people. And while starting college is exciting, some students find themselves overwhelmed by the transition to an unfamiliar environment full of new pressures and expectations.
Awareness and open lines of communication — with family members, professors/instructors, coaches and friends — can go a long way toward making sure no student struggles alone. Check out these tips on how to empower and support your new or continuing college student.
It’s very likely that your student, or one of their roommates or friends, will experience a mental health issue while at college. Prepare your student by talking about mental health on a regular basis. Review together what campus resources are available if they’re ever in a position to help a friend. By maintaining a dialogue, you’ll help them feel comfortable coming to you with questions and problems without fear of being judged.
All students, but particularly those who have already experienced mental health issues, should have a plan in place in case things get too difficult to handle. Call or make an appointment with the campus mental health or counseling center to learn what services are available.
If your student is already in the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist, make plans to continue that care with a clinician close to college. (The campus mental health center may keep a list of convenient off-campus providers who work well with students.) Your student should have regular check-ins with a professional to monitor any changes. They can also register with disability support services to access helpful accommodations.
Make time for regular conversations in addition to texting your student. It’s easier to hear in their voice when something is bothering them than it is to read into a text message. FaceTime and Skype can be even better.
Keep an eye out for symptoms of depression (including sadness), anxiety, hopelessness, irritability, restlessness, sleep difficulties, loss of appetite, suicidal thoughts, unexplained aches and pains, and tearfulness. A sudden drop in academic performance can be another sign that support is needed.
The importance of a healthy diet, adequate sleep and regular exercise can’t be overstated, particularly as they relate to overall mental health. Help your student connect self-care with emotional stability — ask them how they feel when they eat well or when they sleep poorly.
If your student is experiencing mental health issues, prioritize getting help over the fear of tarnishing their transcript or reputation. Some students will need time off from school to recover and get back on track. Each college has its own policy about granting medical leave — you can contact the Dean of Students office to find out the procedure for taking a temporary leave of absence.
Perfection is not a realistic goal and it’s important to let your student know that you support them no matter what. Mistakes and failure are an unavoidable part of life and we can learn from them. A perfect GPA isn’t worth it if it comes at the expense of your student’s emotional well-being.
Active Minds is the nation’s premier nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for students. With a presence on more than 600 campuses benefiting 5.4+ million students, Active Minds empowers students to create supportive communities, connect peers to resources, and take action for suicide prevention. Explore helpful resources at activeminds.org.
Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Ph.D. is director of the College Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and an Active Minds National Advisor.
Help your student take the best possible care of themselves and get support when they need it.