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Supporting Mental Health From a Distance

Guest Contributor

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For most young people, going to college is the first time they've lived away from home. The experience is exciting, maturing and hopefully fun. It is also a big step and almost inevitably it will bring up some degree of anxiety for them.

Students aren't the only ones who might be anxious. For parents who up until this point have been deeply involved in the lives of their children, the shift can be a real challenge. Your students are now making their own decisions about day-to-day activities, including how they care for their health. In the months leading up to move-in day, you most likely nudged them toward independence by encouraging them to take more responsibility for managing their own stuff. But you still may worry if they’ll remember to eat breakfast, get up in time for class, and follow up on assignments, and you might worry most of all when you think about health or mental health problems that could emerge or worsen while your child is away.

How do you plan for and manage this transition and how do you know when your college student might need you to intervene?

If your child has not yet started college, talk with them ahead of time about the importance of paying attention to their health and letting you know if and when problems develop. Make sure your student understands what kind of health insurance coverage they have and how it works. Both of you should familiarize yourselves with support resources at the school your child will attend including health and counseling services.

If your child has had health or mental health problems in the past and needs ongoing management and treatment, it's important to establish a transition plan in consultation with their current healthcare providers and with the relevant offices and clinicians at the college (health, counseling and, if relevant, disabilities services and residence life).

Once your student is living on campus, how will you know if they are having difficulties? Here are some strategies.

Keep in touch

In this age of texting, Snapchat and Instagram, it can feel like we're constantly connected to everyone we know. But it is really helpful to actually speak to your child from time to time. You can often discern things from a conversation (tone of voice, emotional feel and the like) that don’t come through in a text message or email.

If you are concerned, say so

Sometimes parents are afraid to intrude on their student’s privacy. In general this is commendable and sensible. But if something seems off, mention it using specific details and examples. “You sounded really tired yesterday. Are you getting enough sleep?” Most young people are reassured when their parents take a concerned interest in their well-being (as long as you don’t overdo it).

Trust your instincts

You know your child better than anyone else. If you feel something is not right, take your feelings seriously and reach out to them.

Look/listen for change

Again, you know your child best. An emotional health issue is best noticed through changes in functioning. Poor sleep or appetite, a change in self-care (not showering, dressing in markedly different ways), changes in speech (faster, slower, change in quality) or behavior may suggest a problem emerging. If you notice things like these, you should ask your student about it.

Use campus support services

If after speaking to your student you still feel uneasy, you can reach out to professionals on campus. Remember that while colleges cannot necessarily share information with you about your student (they can in a medical emergency), they can always listen to a concerned family member and should work with you to find a way to check in with your student and get back to you with information.

If you are concerned, you can call the Dean of Students or V.P. of Student Affairs office (schools use these terms interchangeably) or the campus counseling service. If there is indeed a problem they should work with you and your student to establish a plan.

Report emergencies right away

If your student talks about violence or self-harm or sounds markedly different from usual (disorganized or incoherent speech), contact the counseling service, campus security or campus student-at-risk team immediately.

How much is too much?

If you find yourself constantly worried about your student and have had several talks with them and with campus professionals and everyone reassures you everything is okay, maybe you are having some trouble separating. Speak to a trusted friend or mental health professional to sort out whether your student is having a problem or whether you are struggling with the separation. It can be very helpful to get a “second opinion.”

Read more about how to talk with your college student about mental health in the NAMI/JED Guide “Starting the Conversation.”
Victor Schwartz, M.D. is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and Medical Director of The Jed Foundation, the nation’s leading organization working to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among America’s college students. Follow him on Twitter @Doctor_Vic.
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