Because I relied on my college’s counseling services almost thirty years ago, I’m passionate about having conversations about mental health with my high school senior. Before she leaves for college, I want her to understand that caring for her mental health is just as important as managing her physical health.
While my personal history sparks this urge, this should be on every parent’s checklist. Most mental illnesses begin between ages 18 and 21, but only one-third of young adults who suffer from mental illness receive treatment.
“These years are a critical time in brain development. And we also know that attending college is a big change that includes new stresses,” says Elizabeth Hinkle, a licensed marriage and family therapist and adolescent peer consultant for Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy provider. “The good news is that most kids today are pretty savvy about the importance of mental health, so you can approach it openly and honestly.”
She suggests starting with the idea that mental health is about feeling emotionally and psychologically well. “Let them know that we all have times in our lives when we struggle and need extra support. Often, dealing with mental health issues is about learning how to manage stress,” says Hinkle. In fact, one out of every two people will experience a mental health challenge in their lifetime.
These conversations around mental health are part of helping young adults build a new support system at their college, says Laura Horne, program director for Active Minds, a national nonprofit organization that supports mental health awareness and education among college students. “If you can share examples of people you know and love who are dealing with mental health issues, that will help destigmatize and normalize it,” adds Horne.
Navigating Mental Health Care on Campus
Here are the experts’ recommendations for helping your college student navigate mental health care once they arrive on campus:
1. Know depression symptoms.
Stay in touch with your student through regular phone calls and texting. Look for and ask about common signs of depression, such as sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, sleep difficulties, tearfulness, loss of appetite, and sudden drop in academic performance. Encourage your student to establish good habits that correlate with positive mental health. Remind them that good eating, sleep, and exercise can help them maintain emotional stability.
Says Hinkle, “Common red flags are big mood changes, avoidance of usual activities, or an inability to physically care for yourself. Are you attending classes? Are you sleeping too little or too much? If you are usually extroverted and social, you might be more isolated or staying in your room.” Hinkle adds that a spike in drinking or drug usage can also be a sign of depression.
2. Scope out on-campus resources.
Visit the campus counseling center with your student. Ask about the range of services they provide on campus as well as a list of off-campus providers who work well with students. If visiting in-person isn’t possible, gather as much of this information online as you can and email the counseling center to ask if there is anything you are missing. Other departments to be familiar with are Disabilities Services (where your child can apply for special accommodations if needed), the Health Center, and the Dean of Students Office. There may also be a designated support coordinator for first-year students.
3. Consider online therapy.
Therapy can also literally be as close as the phone in your pocket, says Hinkle. “Online therapy might be a good option for a student unable to make in-person counseling happen due to logistics or feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, or depression,” says Hinkle. Clients can message her any time, 24 hours a day/7 days a week via text, video, and audio messaging and she will respond 5 days a week, up to two times per day.
“We think of checking in with patients five days a week as equivalent to one 50-minute therapy session a week, with the conversation going back and forth instead of in one session. It’s similar to face-to-face therapy: I get to know and understand a client and I’m there for support and validation and to actively teach them skills to manage their depression and anxiety,” says Hinkle. She adds that some clients also like that they can read or listen to old messages, too.
4. Choose a therapist.
Parents and students should vet an online therapy service before they sign on for sessions.
At Talkspace, once clients enter their email address and create a username, they enter a private, online chat room where a consultation therapist discusses plan possibilities and then assesses the client’s needs so they can match them with a therapist. Clients can then send their Talkspace therapist text, audio, picture, or video messages in a private, text-based chat room. Students can schedule live video sessions as well, depending upon the plan they select.
College can be overwhelming, particularly if it’s the first time your student is away from home. By anticipating their needs and discussing the resources available, hopefully you’ll find peace of mind for you and for them.