This time of year is notoriously stressful for college students. Exams are coming up. Final projects are due. Darkness comes earlier and lasts longer. Some students yearn to get home for the holidays. Others dread the prospect.
“In our college-age population, there are a lot of different stressors, including academic pressures and expectations placed on college students,” says UNC Health psychologist Samantha Pflum, PhD. “Typically, classes are much harder than they were in high school, and the competition is more intense.”
Combine those annual stressors with the strain of the last few years brought by the pandemic, isolation and social division, and it’s clear that young adults are in crisis, mental health experts warn. Suicides and even homicides on college campuses are in the news, and university counseling centers cannot meet the demand for services.
If you’re the parent of a college student, you might know all this but wonder how to help your child at this tricky juncture between childhood and full-fledged adulthood. Dr. Pflum offers some suggestions.
How Parents Can Support Their College Students’ Mental Health
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting your child’s mental health, Dr. Pflum says.
“A big part of knowing what to do is knowing your young person,” she says. “Do they enjoy getting care packages? If so, send them. Maybe put in some healthy snacks, fidget toys, Silly Putty, things to help them deal with the stress.”
Think before you contact them, she says. Will a phone call help or add to their stress?
“It might be better to let them call you when they have the time,” she says. But make sure your support and love are known. “You can send a text message offering support.”
The messages don’t have to be serious—you can send them a picture of a pet or siblings, maybe doing something silly. “Don’t expect a response to your text,” Dr. Pflum says. “Just trust that you have sent them a message of support.”
If your child opens up about something causing them stress, don’t try to jump in and fix the problem, she says. Validate what they’re experiencing and simply listen, unless they specifically ask for advice. Don’t judge their feelings.
A parent also can encourage their young person to take breaks and use good self-care skills, if the young person is open to advice.
“Encourage them to do something fun,” Dr. Pflum says. “Maybe enjoy a good meal or go out with friends. Maybe take a break to read or relax.”
Listen for Signs Your College Student May Be Having a Mental Health Crisis
Some behaviors signal problems beyond normal end-of-semester stress and worry. For example, pay close attention if your child:
- Starts missing classes, letting their grades slip or has trouble keeping up.
- Isolates themselves from friends, roommates or family members.
- Uses alcohol or other drugs excessively to deal with stress.
- Experiences sleep disturbances or disruptions (beyond typical late-night studying) or sleeps more than usual.
- Shares thoughts about suicide or harming themselves or others. (Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.)
“If a parent senses their young person is feeling overwhelmed or they are struggling, let them know how to get help,” Dr. Pflum says, “and encourage them to take advantage of the resources their school offers.”
Colleges have mental health resources. Most offer in-person and telehealth visits and have health providers on call 24/7 for emergencies. Some campuses sponsor group therapy and mental health workshops to help students learn how to manage emotions. Most have free mental health screenings, in person and online, to understand what issues need to be addressed.
You can get immediate help by calling the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). This service offers 24/7 call, text and chat access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing suicidal thoughts, a mental health or substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress. Individuals also can dial 988 if they are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.
Prepare for Back-to-School in January
The return to campus and classes in the new year can be a source of stress, too.
“Students may feel apprehensive about going back to school after a monthlong break without studying,” Dr. Pflum says.
Then there are the anxieties that can accompany dorm or other group living, and other social situations. Usually, there aren’t the same planned activities at the beginning of the second semester. It’s colder and darker than it was in the fall. And students may be missing family and friends they reconnected with over the holidays.
“Parents can help by asking what they are looking forward to doing when they get back,” she says. “Maybe they’re eager to see friends or are looking forward to new classes. You can also encourage them to try something new—a sport or club or other activity. Make sure they know you’re always there for them but remind them they have a lot of cool stuff to look forward to.”
And while you’re at it, college parents, take care of yourself, too.
“Parents care deeply about their young person’s well-being,” Dr. Pflum says. “Sometimes parents need their own support system—family, friends, a faith community. Make sure you are doing for yourself what you suggest they do: get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise.”
If you or your young person needs some guidance dealing with stress and anxiety, talk to your doctor, or find one near you.