Preparing Your Teen for the Risk of Mental Health Issues in College

upset college student

Today's teenagers are more stressed and anxious than ever before. In fact, an estimated 1 in 4 teens are living with a mental health condition. But teens tend to bottle up their feelings. Consequently, parents have no idea that there may be a problem and they may send them off to college without addressing the issue.

Sadly, untreated depression and other mental health issues can take a toll on a college student's performance. It also can lead to a lower GPA and a greater risk of dropping out. Mental health issues can increase the risk of drug and alcohol abuse as well as thoughts of suicide.

If your college student is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Even if teens go to college without mental health issues, they may develop them when they are there without the necessary support services to help them manage. Just 17 percent of all parents said they thought about access to on-campus mental health services when considering schools for their student. Even parents of teens with already diagnosed mental health issues don't prioritize a college's mental health services—only 28 percent of these parents looking into the mental health services of a college. 

Mental Health Issues in College

Mental illness is a common issue among college students. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four students has a diagnosable illness but 40 percent of them will never seek help. The organization also reports that 80 percent of college students feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and half of them have become so anxious at times that they struggled in school.

Meanwhile, a report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that demand for mental health services has risen steadily over the last decade. Among those seeking counseling or support from their colleges, the most common conditions were anxiety and depression. Other common issues plaguing college students include recovering from sexual assault, addiction, self-harm and eating disorders.

Nearly 75 percent of all mental health conditions start before the age of 24. This fact is not surprising considering that college is a big life transition that places stress on a developing teenage brain. Many college students leave behind a protective family cocoon and enter a highly challenging academic and social environment. You can see why college life may create the perfect storm for mental health issues. 

What You Should Do Before College

Because college falls right in the middle of the age range for development of mental health issues, it is critical that parents and doctors focus on kids' emotional wellbeing before the college years arrive. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare your child beforehand. 

Ask Your Student Open-Ended Questions

One of the best ways to prepare a student for what she might face is to have open conversations about how she is feeling, what she is worrying about and what is getting her down. Teaching a teen how to recognize and name what she is feeling is the first step in teaching her how to care for herself emotionally.

By doing so, she will learn to identify when things seem off in her life. Another suggestion is to regularly ask your teen what she is looking forward to. If she cannot name anything, this is a red flag that she may be struggling in some way mentally. Typically, students struggling with depression cannot see anything positive or worthwhile in their lives so they have trouble pointing out something they may be looking forward to.

Do Your Research on Colleges

 Visit the school websites of the colleges your teen is considering and search for key words like "depression," "substance abuse," and "anxiety." If the college's counseling center and other resources pop up immediately, then this is a pretty good indication that the school is anticipating the needs of its students.

Another option is to call the counseling center anonymously and ask questions. Some things you might ask include: Are counseling services free and if not, how much do they cost? How do students set up appointments? Are there limits on the number of counseling sessions permitted?

Talk About Managing Private Health Information

Once your teen turns 18, her healthcare information becomes private. What this means is that your child must give her approval in writing for before a doctor or college counselor can share medical information with you. The exception is an emergency situation.

Talk to your teen about signing consent forms that let campus doctors and counselors talk to you as well as their doctors at home. Keep in mind though that your child can rescind consent at any time. 

Teach Your Teen How to Manage Her Health

Part of growing up includes learning how to manage responsibilities like laundry, budgeting, and meal preparation. Managing personal healthcare is just as important. Remember, once your child turns 18, she will be in charge of her own medical care. As a result, you can start helping her take ownership of that by teaching her the importance of exercise, eating right and getting plenty of sleep. You also can encourage her to set her own doctors appointments and keep track of when yearly physicals, eye exams, and dental appointments as needed.

When Your Teen Leaves for College

The number of students seeking mental health services at college is rapidly increasing. In fact, between 2009 and 2015, the number of students visiting counseling centers increased by about 30 percent according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. Meanwhile, enrollment grew by less than 6 percent. The center also reported that students seeking help are likely to have attempted suicide or have engaged in self-harm.

Additionally, researchers at American College Health Association found that nearly 40 percent of college students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function. And, 61 percent of students said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the same time period.

With statistics like these, ensuring that your teen is mentally healthy while away at college can seem like a daunting task, especially if your teen is hundreds or thousands of miles away. Here are some suggestions on how to support your college student.

  • Stay connected. One way to bridge the distance is to use apps like Skype or FaceTime to keep the lines of communication open. Set up a regular time to talk for 20 minutes about what is going on their lives. Just be sure not to hover too much. Remember, your college student needs to learn to be independent. 
  • Discuss the signs of mental health issues. Be sure your teen knows what to look for in terms of depression and anxiety. By doing so, you are equipping her with the knowledge she needs to be able to identify when something is not quite right in her life. Also, be sure she knows there is nothing to be ashamed of nor is it a sign of weakness to become depressed. Educate her on the fact that depression has a genetic link and is almost always brought on by a chemical imbalance in the brain. When this happens, it is important that the condition is treated. Without help, the condition will likely only get worse.
  • Provide assistance when needed. If you suspect your college student is struggling with a mental health issue like depression, anxiety or something more significant like bipolar disorder, be sure you do what you can to connect her with the proper resources at college, even if that means making a visit to the campus. If are unable to visit the campus, call the college's counseling center and report your concerns. You also can reach out to the dean of students or, on a residential campus, your child's housing director. 

A Word From Verywell

College can be an exciting time for your teen. But it can be stressful too. As a result, it is not uncommon for mental health issues to arise or become more prominent during this time. For this reason, you should educate your teen about mental health issues and different ways to get help.

Begin by making sure your teen knows that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Mental illness is quite common among their age group with 1 in 4 young people having a diagnosable illness. So, they are not alone. Be sure they know that they have your support no matter what happens. 

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