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8 Ways Parents Can Help College Students Protect Their Mental Health

Get to know the resources they have on and off campus, including their friends

Stressed college student sitting on ground with head in hands.

Sending your kid off to college can be a nerve-wracking experience. Whether they’re moving to a new country or a couple blocks down the street, your child is about to go through a lot of complicated transitions. And so are you!

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Most of those transitions are going to be exciting and joyful, but college isn’t all fun and games. It’s also pretty darned stressful at points. Your child is going to be growing in almost every area of their lives. Whether it’s learning to live with roommates, adjusting to difficult coursework, managing their time and money, or deciding on a major, your kid’s bound to go through some growing pains. And the stress that comes with those growing pains can affect their mental health.

True, you can’t (and shouldn’t) be there for your child in exactly the same way you were during primary school. But there’s still plenty you can do to help your college-bound student have a smooth, healthy transition.

We talked to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, about the mental health concerns college students face and what you can do to help your child get through the challenges of this new chapter.

Why mental health can be a problem for college students

There are several reasons that mental health issues are so prominent on college campuses, but the biggest — according to Dr. Albers — is that colleges and universities don’t have enough resources to support their student populations. Many young people arrive to campus having already been diagnosed with mental illnesses and needing extra help to succeed. For others, college is the moment when their mental health issues first emerge. Those students need help too.

Part of the reason it’s so common for college students to develop mental health issues, or experience more symptoms, is their age. Individuals between the ages of 17 and 22 are still experiencing hormonal changes — and may still be in the midst of puberty. Their brains are also still developing. It’s common for mental illnesses to arise (or get noticeably worse) in early adulthood, even if there aren’t external factors leading to extra stress. But there are plenty of external forces impacting mental health and overall stress levels while in college.

Whether someone has a diagnosable mental illness or not, both their emotional and physical well-being tends to be a bit shakier while at school. It’s a period of intense pressure and big transitions. Add substance (mis)use, sleep deprivation, poor diet and increased exposure to infectious disease to the equation and you’ve got a perfect storm on your hands.

Advice for parents of college-bound students

But the news isn’t all bad. There’s a lot you can do to help your college student have a positive experience at college without even setting foot on campus. And helping your child learn how to manage their mental health and recover from setbacks is a lesson that will be at least as helpful as the things they learn in their classes.

So, how can you help? Dr. Albers offers the following recommendations.

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Evaluate campus resources

When it comes to mental health, you want to have the safety net unfurled long before your child needs it. But that can be easier said than done for a college freshman. Your kid is going to be very busy in those first few months. They may not take the time they should to familiarize themselves with all the resources that are available to them.

“Maybe that can be the parent’s role — finding out what kind of resources exist on and off campus,” Dr. Albers suggests. She also notes that, as a result of the increase in mental health issues students have faced since the COVID-19 pandemic started, many campuses are joining with telehealth platforms to expand their mental health services.

Take the time to learn about all the options and empower your child to take advantage of whatever services will be most comfortable for them.

And remember, mental health resources aren’t the only on-campus support systems your child might take advantage of. Dr. Albers suggests they consider the following, too:

  • Stress management classes and events. That may be a yoga class, meditation training, a Tai Chi group or an art therapy event.
  • Stress-free spaces. Some schools have wellness or relaxation rooms on campus that students can visit when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
  • Gyms. Exercise is a great stress buster, and there are lots of intramural clubs students can join (or classes they can take) to build physical activity and social time into their week.
  • Local parks and green spaces. Whether it’s the quad, the campus’ arboretum, a nearby hiking trail or a rooftop garden in the middle of the city, getting a chance to be in nature can do wonders for your mental health.
  • Nutrition support services. Some schools have dietitians on staff to advise students who are trying to eat healthier. It’s also common to have food pantries, cooking classes and eating disorder support groups on college campuses.
  • Affinity groups. Students from marginalized backgrounds often experience additional stress at school. In addition to campus organizations like LGBTQIA+, international, religious or BIPOC student centers, there are often student-run clubs that offer mutual support and empowerment for underrepresented communities.

If necessary, help your student register for accommodations

If your child has a documented disability of any kind, it’s important that they get registered with the campus’ disability resources department as soon as possible.

If your child is reluctant to get registered, Dr. Albers suggests reminding them of three important things:

  1. Being granted disability accommodations isn’t the same thing as using disability accommodations.
  2. Accommodations can’t be granted retroactively, so it’s important they get them set up before they need them.
  3. Nobody outside of the disability resource office will know the details of their condition. What students disclose is their call.

Unfortunately, getting registered with disability resources can be a pretty cumbersome process and requires interfacing with their care team back home. You can’t go to accommodations meetings for your child, but helping them get all the documentation they need could save a lot of time and headaches.

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Ensure continuity of care

Campus counseling centers aren’t designed to provide long-term help. So, if your child has pre-existing mental health issues that they see a therapist for, getting them connected to a counselor in their area (or setting up telehealth appointments with their current provider) may provide some much-needed consistency during a time of big changes. It’s also a good opportunity to teach them about how health insurance works and what the process of finding a therapist looks like.

Do regular check-ins with your child

According to Dr. Albers, nutritious food, vigorous exercise and restorative sleep are the foundation of mental health. They’re also things a lot of new college students aren’t used to managing on their own — and tend not to prioritize.

That’s why, whenever possible, she suggests using a video platform to talk to your college student. “That way, you can see what they look like — see if they look exhausted, if they look like they’re not eating well, that sort of thing.”

Meet their friends

It’s always nice to get to know the people your kid cares about. Establishing those relationships also creates another opportunity to secure the safety net, so to speak.

“Give their friends your contact information and get that they can feel comfortable reaching out to you about your child,” Dr. Albers recommends. “And be sure to let them know that that’s OK to do.”

Listen without judgment

College is meant to be challenging. And that’s a good thing. But if your child is struggling with mental health issues, that added pressure can lead to mistakes, missed opportunities and poor judgment.

No parent wants to hear that their child skipped classes, flunked an exam, got arrested or overdrew their account, but responding negatively does more harm than good.

“Listening without judgment can be a tough one for parents,” Dr. Albers concedes. “But it’s critical to making sure that your child is talking about their mental health struggles.”

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Help where you can

You can’t make your child get enough sleep, eat healthy food or make time for exercise when they’re at college, but there are some basic things you can help with.

Do what you can to ensure your kid has the resources they need. For some parents, that means sending cash when their budget’s tighter than usual. For others it may mean assembling a little care package. For parents whose children live nearby, ask them if they’d like a home-cooked meal. If your kid’s homesick, arrange a video call with the whole family.

Helping ensure your child’s most basic needs are met may reduce their overall stress level — or at least free up some brain space to focus on higher-order concerns.

Encourage them to seek help

It can be hard to hear that your child’s dealing with mental health issues, especially if you come from a background where seeking help is stigmatized. But it’s important to check any negative feelings you have about mental illness, therapy and medications at the door. Talk about mental health in an open and nonjudgmental way. And be supportive of your child’s efforts to get help — be that from a therapist, a tutor, an affinity group or disability resources staff.

Life lessons

It can be scary watching your kid make the transition to secondary school, especially knowing that there’s a mental health crisis unfolding on college campuses.

Your child will undoubtedly face challenges in the years to come, but with those challenges come opportunities. With your support and guidance, your child can learn how to identify and address mental health concerns as they arise — and get comfortable asking for help when they need it.

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