Between virtual learning, the cancellation of beloved events, and fewer chances to socialize safely, the pandemic has taken a toll on college students this year. No surprise that many college students report their mental health has taken a turn for the worse.
Read on for ways to identify if your kid is wrestling with anxiety, depression or plain-old burnout. And if so, what you can to do help.
Mental and emotional health issues are common
We love to talk about how resilient our kids are. And they are. But a year of almost non-stop bad news and disappointments can leave anyone feeling down at least occasionally. For families that have also faced financial challenges, serious illness, or the loss of a loved one, that’s even more stress your college student has had to grapple with.
Look at the recent survey from The Jed Foundation, a not-for-profit focused on preventing suicide and protecting the emotional health of teens and young adults. It found that among college and graduate students getting ready for the Fall 2020 semester:
63% said their emotional health is worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic
56% were concerned about their ability to care for their mental health
30% had sought counseling to address their concerns; 48% had turned to friends and 39% to family for support
The stresses are similar, but how a given person responds is different. The most common issues students in the survey reported were:
social isolation/loneliness (68%)
trouble concentrating (62%)
difficulty coping with stress in a healthy way (60%)
Those are some troubling stats, and no one could blame you for wondering if your student is dealing with one or more of these issues. Especially if your kid isn’t living with or near you, making it harder to keep an eye on their day-to-day mental state. But there are things you can look for. You may need to act if your child:
is struggling to maintain their grades, attend classes, or complete assignments
seems to lack motivation for even basic, routine tasks and responsibilities
has less interest in or gets less enjoyment from their typical activities/hobbies
mentions feelings of loneliness
shows signs of being irritable, frustrated, overly tired
How you can help
Unfortunately, the days of being able to solve most of your kid’s problems with a hug and some ice cream are long gone. As your child moves into adulthood, your role changes from caregiver to advisor. Dictating what they should do (even if you’re absolutely right) isn’t likely to be received well. Instead, try these more indirect approaches:
Stay connected, don't hover
Depending on your kid, their communications preferences, and whether they attend school close to home, this could be a daily text check-in, a weekly call, or having lunch one-on-one once a week. The format and timing matter less than keeping those lines of communication open so when your kid has something they want to discuss with you, it’s easy to do.
Bonus: It also gives you a chance to keep an eye on any major changes that could signal your child is dealing with a significant mental health problem.
Guide, don't solve
Maybe it’s obvious to you that your child took on a too-ambitious course load. Or that their new relationship isn’t the healthiest. Or even that they just aren’t eating right. You’re probably right. Doesn’t matter. These are the kinds of realizations your child has to start making on their own.
Fight the urge to tell your kid they still have to eat their veggies or that they’d be less stressed out if they dropped that second lab course. Your job now is to help them recognize when they need to make changes and—once they’re ready—provide guidance on how to make those changes.
For example: If you think your child is struggling because they have too much on their plate, you might ask how much time they spend on classwork this semester compared to last. Or if they still have time for their favorite hobby. Get them thinking about the issue so they can evaluate it and find their own solutions.
These more hands-off steps ensure your child knows you care and can be counted on without making them feel like you don’t trust them to manage their own problems.
Watch for signs of a mental health crisis
If you notice significant changes in personality, activity level or emotional state, check in more closely. It’s not uncommon for even high-achieving teens and young adults to acquire mental health issues in college. These are potentially more serious and may require more action on your part.
If your child is really struggling with mental health —more than just burnout or stress—they make choices that seem unwise or self-defeating. Don’t judge them and don’t let your discussions about those issues turn into power struggles. If your kid’s mental health is suffering, more than anything they need your support.
Instead of offering specific help, ask what they need from you. But be prepared that they may not be sure what that is. If not, that’s OK. At least they know you’re there, listening, and ready to step up if and when they want you to. Sometimes that alone can make a big difference in making someone feel supported and loved.
Resources—for you and them
If your child seems to be struggling with a serious mental health issue or is possibly suicidal—or if you just feel like you aren’t able to help them as much as they need—don’t hesitate to look for other resources that can provide advice for you or services for your child.
The first place to look, especially if your child is living on campus, are resources within the college. Depending on the specific issue and the school’s resources, you (or your kid) may want to reach out to the college health center, a counseling office, or their academic advisor.
Some schools have more robust options than others, but all of the above should at least be able to point you towards other resources.
If your kid is learning remotely and access to therapy isn’t easy, there are online options. You can check with your health insurance to see what they offer. Or check out TAO Connect. This app provides affordable, accessible therapy services. (Note: Some colleges already have accounts here. During the pandemic, the site has also made its resources available to the general public.)
The JED Foundation maintains an extensive list of expert resources for a variety of mental health issues including substance abuse, eating disorders, and challenges faced by LGBTQ students.
College can be a stressful time. College in a pandemic even more so. But with a supportive family and the right resources, your student can get through even the most challenging time as a stronger, wiser adult.
Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky