By Karen Vaughn, MEd, LPC, CEAP, SAP
The birds and the bees, drinking, drug use, campus safety – these are all important issues to discuss with college students. But how many people have a frank discussion with their college student about mental illness and how to stay mentally healthy? The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 75% of mental health issues begin by young adult age. Research shows that one in four students has a diagnosable illness, 40% do not seek help, 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and 50% felt so anxious that they struggled in school. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college age kids.
The stressors that accompany going away to college can be enormous. Every student can feel stressed sometimes and it is normal for students to feel down on occasion. But the transition of moving away from home, building personal relationships, balancing work and school life and academic responsibilities – these are extreme stressors that can exacerbate existing mental illnesses or trigger new ones. Does your student know when too much stress should be a reason for concern? Do they know how and where to get help if they become overwhelmed?
So, what should you tell your college student about mental illness?
First, make sure they understand that being nervous about going away and/or starting college is normal. The fears and the stress that go along with the unknown can be intense. When most kids go to college they want to feel mature enough to handle being away, so they may not want to confide that they are missing mom and dad. Tell them that being homesick is normal and not a sign of weakness.
Second, make sure they know the signs of common mental health issues that plague college campuses. The best way to describe this is to tell them that anything out of their character or to the extreme should be watched. For example, changes in sleep pattern such as sleeping much more or much less for no particular reason, changes in appetite, changes in mood such as being sad more often, not feeling like going places or doing things, not enjoying things that they normally enjoy, being more easily irritated or easily angered, having thoughts of harming themselves or someone else, having panic attacks, hearing voices and seeing things that are not there, confused thinking and/or difficulty concentrating.
Third, let them know where they can go to get help. Make sure they know they can reach out to you. But because of the stigma attached to mental health and the need to be autonomous they may hesitate, so let them know that most college campuses have counseling centers for students. There are also community counseling centers in most cities and states. Tell them know how to access counseling through their health benefits if they are covered. Inform them about employee assistance programs (EAPs) that may be available through their employer if they work. Additional resources include 800-DONTCUT for referral and support for cutting and self-harm and 800-278-TALK for suicide prevention. The National Alliance on Mental Illness website is an excellent resource for information and resources.
Finally, stress the importance of getting help early! Mental illness does not get better with time. You want your college student to be prepared in every way to be successful and have a productive, fun and healthy college experience. As the parent and guardian, you must make sure you equip them with the tools they need to succeed.