As a parent of college students, I’ve heard countless stories about friends and roommates who struggled with mental health issues. One was overwhelmed with freshman worry, another became depressed during a sophomore slump, and a third experienced a crisis of confidence. One friend’s son experienced an attack of anxiety so acute, he couldn’t leave his dorm room.
The mental wellness of college students is a concern nationwide, and levels of college anxiety and depression on campus continue to rise. Two-thirds of students who experience anxiety or depression don’t seek help, according to the 2019 National College Health Assessment. Even more disturbing, the Centers for Disease Control has reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college age kids.
When your student is living at home, it’s easier to keep an eye on their mental health. You can observe their mood and know if it interferes with their schoolwork or social life. But how do you gauge their state of mind, and how can you help, when they’re on a campus hundreds of miles away?
They’re Not Alone
Before your student ever sets foot on campus, discuss mental health issues and the resources that are available, recommends Dr. Desreen Dudley, who treats many college students as a clinical psychologist and senior behavioral health consultant for Teladoc Health, a global virtual care provider. Also, remind students that they have a support system of friends, family, and professionals who are ready to help if needed.
But keep in mind that a huge jump in the number of students seeking mental health services means college counseling centers don’t always have appointments immediately available, according to a report from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. In fact, students can wait an average of more than six business days for a first session. And students who are waitlisted for appointments may wait more than 17 days.
Help is a Click Away
Students who face that kind of delay may give up and change their minds about getting counseling at all, says Dudley. Virtual care, or telemedicine, offers a timely, convenient and accessible alternative. For example, students can arrange a virtual visit with a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, therapist, or social worker through Teladoc within two days. All they need is a phone or a computer, and they can pick a behavioral health expert who fits their needs.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of virtual care is privacy: Students can consult with a therapist right from their dorm room or any comfortable and private location of their choice.
“It takes a lot of courage for them to ask for help and it’s a lot easier for them to do it privately on their phone, whether it’s through a phone call or a video session, as opposed to walking in for counseling at the wellness center,” Dudley says.
Know the Warning Signs
Whether your student has chronic mental health issues or simply needs a mental wellness tune-up, be aware of red flags so you’ll be able to help, even if you’re miles away.
For example, Dudley says it’s perfectly normal for students to feel a little lonely or overwhelmed when they’re away at school, but if feelings of depression or anxiety persist for two weeks or more, professional help may be needed. Mental health issues can also cause physical symptoms. If your student complains of nausea, aches and pains, or diarrhea that doesn’t seem get better, consult a behavioral health expert.
Other red flags include:
- Lack of energy
- Decreased motivation
- Excessive sleeping
- Slipping grades
- Isolating themselves
- Changes in appetite
- Less contact with family
Some questions Dudley suggests you can ask to help gauge their state of mind are:
- “Have you been feeling sad, down, or anxious?”
- “How do you feel you’re doing with your schoolwork?”
- “Is there anyone you’re seeing romantically?” Don’t be afraid to ask about their sex life or sexual identity because these greatly impact state of mind, Dudley says.
- “How are you feeling about you?”
How You Can Help
- Talk openly about mental health issues and the resources available, including their campus wellness center and the option for telemedicine as a convenient, accessible tool.
- Let them know you care about their mental wellness, not just their grades.
- Assure them you are available to listen to their concerns without judgement. If they say, “I think I need to talk to someone,” take it seriously. Help them find a therapist or other mental health professional.
- Listen for statements that may indicate anxiety and depression, such as “I feel sad or down.” “I don’t feel like doing anything or going out.” “I have a hard time sleeping.” “I get very nervous.”
- Support them with occasional calls, visits, and care packages.
- Review your insurance for mental healthcare coverage. Some number of visits, including virtual visits, may be included in your coverage; additional visits can vary in cost.
College can be a tough transitional time for both students and their parents. Knowing the resources that are available to you, and to them, can go a long way toward providing everyone some peace of mind.