Helping Your Student Manage Mental Health
Knowing How to Deal with Setbacks
Even with fridge full of nutritious snacks, supplies to make them feel better when they are sick, and the many opportunities for recreation, it is inevitable that your student will run into some bumps along their new journey. What do you do when the excitement of the first few days or weeks wears off and you sense your student is struggling?
Your very normal reaction as a parent may be to jump in to try and make it all better. However, the first step and best response is to simply to listen and be supportive as your student shares what is probably a very normal adjustment to their new environment, roommates, courses, academic assignments, social life, and the bounty of choices and responsibilities. It is important to be cognizant that you, too, are adjusting to your student being away and will need to be mindful about excessive communication. Your best bet is to encourage them to utilize campus resources.
Homesickness and Loneliness
Even amidst a vibrant campus environment, loneliness and homesickness can happen and are part of the transition to college for just about everyone.
Review Ten Tips for Managing Loneliness and Homesickness with your student.
It is important to note how fleeting feelings of loneliness and unhappiness can be for young adults. It is not uncommon for them to call you when they are sad beyond belief, leaving you concerned and upset for the day, while those intense feelings have passed for them, and they are now off having a great time with their friends! If those feelings don’t pass, though, you can help your student learn how to manage them and to seek help.
Signs Your Student Is Doing Well or Struggling with Transition to Campus
There will definitely be ups and downs during your student’s transition to college life. Some signs their transition has gone well include:
- Their confidence is increasing and they are developing a sense of self. Any feelings of loneliness or homesickness are decreasing, even if they haven’t completely gone away.
- They feel like they are part of the community. They have a routine and campus is starting to feel just as much like “home” as their family home does.
- They are practicing self-care behaviors, like getting enough sleep and eating healthy foods.
- They find their classes and co-curricular activities energizing and engaging.
- When they experience stress or a setback, they have a way to manage it and move on.
What if your student isn’t feeling this yet?
It’s okay if they don’t feel this way yet, and it’s also okay if they feel this some of the time but not all of the time. The first year of college can be challenging and meeting others and settling into a routine can take time.
How do I know if my student truly is not doing well?
You can gauge how well your student is doing with the transition by asking them the following questions.
How frequently do you feel the way you do?
If occasional, like once or twice a week, or less frequently, then they are probably still in the midst of their adjustment to campus. If it is happening daily, or when they are doing other things like schoolwork or campus activities, it may be a good idea to check in with someone at your campus health or counseling center.
How strong are your feelings?
If the intensity of their feelings are interfering with their daily activities and self-care routines, talking to someone may help.
How long have you felt this way?
While there is no set time for adjustment to college, most people feel better towards the end of their first semester. It’s a good idea for your student to check in with someone at their campus health or counseling center if they find themselves in the midst of their second semester and their feelings have not subsided.
How have your feelings impacted your experiences on campus?
If at any point your student finds they are overwhelmed, are having difficulty participating in classes or connecting socially with others, lose interest in things they previously enjoyed, feel hopeless, or experiencing other significant disruptions, they should seek care.
Well-Being and Academic Success
Well-being and academic success in college are closely related, and college students indicate that there are aspects of their physical health or emotional health that contribute to academic challenges.
Top 5 physical or emotional well-being factors that affected individual academic performance in the past 12 months
- Stress (32%)
- Anxiety (26%)
- Sleep (20%)
- Depression (17%)
- Cold/Flu/Sore Throat (13%)
As you can see, taking care of oneself by managing stress, getting adequate sleep, seeking care when not feeling well, and preventing illness [Link to Other Content Areas]are all things a student can do to promote academic performance. Students who overlook these or ignore their health may find that they have lower grades compared to students who take care of their health and well-being. Talk with your student about why this happens.
Getting Acclimated: Resources to Know and Pitfalls to Avoid
While you are most likely hopeful and optimistic about the semesters ahead for your student, there are probably some campus resources covered during orientation that they—and maybe you—don’t think they will ever need. While these resources may seem irrelevant now, given the connection between well-being and academics, chances are your student will need to utilize one or more of these services while on campus. Discuss these resources with your student and become familiar with the following campus offices so that you can point your student in the right direction for help.
Transition pitfalls do occur. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid in order to support optimal well-being and help your student make the transition to campus life.
If your student is struggling, many campuses offer individual counseling and/or group sessions and workshops to boost coping skills during this time of transition. In a true emergency, parents can directly receive guidance from campus resources, but the best plan is to support your student as they learn to seek help and guidance. Providing space for your student to figure things out on their own will help them become more resilient and more successful during and after college.
When to Intervene if You Are Concerned about Your Student
As a parent or guardian, it is pretty safe to say that you know your child better than almost anyone. While your student’s roommates, resident advisors, and professors are also developing relationships with your student, if you sense that your child does not sound “right” and is dealing with more than the normal adjustments to living away from home and the academic rigor of college, you can be more proactive. If you are alarmed by the way your child sounds or what they may be saying (or not saying), you can contact the Dean of Students Office, which is accustomed to working with concerned family members.
Some colleges have CARE (Coordination, Assessment, Response and Education) teams that work to identify students in distress and develop a plan of action. CARE teams often consist of administrators who work across the campus to develop a plan to keep students safe on campus and emotionally well enough to attend school.
It’s important to remember that your student’s school is not going to be able to share all the details with you. The Dean of Students Office at your student’s institution can provide guidance on what can be shared and what can’t be shared, as well as how you can support your student in the best way possible.
When and How to Intervene
- Know the signs that a student may be in distress and know which campus resources, like the Dean’s office, residential center, health center or counseling center, or CARE Teams, can provide advice if you are concerned.
- Trust your gut. You know your student best; if something is worrying you, check in with them.
- In an emergency, call the campus police department or emergency response line.
- Sometimes your student may seek you out to vent because they know you will listen. This does not mean you have to act on every problem they are experiencing or that they are asking you to solve the problem for them. Just listen, express empathy or other words of encouragement, and ask “What do you need in this moment to feel better?”
- Don’t intervene and call offices for something your student can do. It is the role of faculty and staff to help your student develop autonomy and competencies in self-advocating. Let them learn how to resolve issues on their own. For example, families should never contact faculty over grades, residential life staff because of a roommate conflict, or a coach because their student isn’t experiencing playing time.
- Instead, encourage your student to advocate for themselves. And if they are reluctant to, ask them why. There may be an underlying fear of rejection or failure if they don’t get the answer they are hoping for, or there may be another issue at play. Listen to their answer and try to discern if it’s a normal part of becoming an adult or something more serious.
- Reinforce that there will be ups and downs to their first semester or year and that there are resources available to them to help with the transition.
- Don’t talk about how wonderful your college years were or how exciting this time should be for them—especially if your student is feeling lonely or isolated. This can make it worse for them by giving an unrealistic comparison.
- Learning how to handle discomfort is an important life skill. If your student reaches out, help your student name how they are feeling and help them identify ways that make them feel better and move on. Don’t be a fixer…rather, help them learn how to fix things on their own.
- Set reasonable expectations of your student and help them set realistic goals for themselves. Sometimes, the first semester is challenging because they are learning how to be college students. Having reasonable expectations helps students feel less stress and benefits their well-being.