Talking to your college-bound child about mental health

By: Dr. Deborah Schwartz (Chester Pediatrics– White Plains, NY)

As your child is preparing to start or return to college, take time to discuss the stresses of college life. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), encourages families to start the conversation now about mental health challenges, including what the privacy laws are and how mental health information can be shared. Starting this conversation may not be easy, but it is a useful tool to keep channels of communication open between you and your child.

There are many colleges that require incoming freshmen to complete online courses about alcohol and drug use.  There are also some families that have a family history of mental illness and substance abuse. Use this as a springboard to start the talk. These conversations may help your child to be proactive about their own physical and mental health.

The excitement of being out of the house for the first time, in a new environment with new people, may mean your child has not considered the other emotions they may experience.  Not only are they having to deal with the pressures of living away from home, but they are navigating the task of that innovative but rigorous college academic schedule and the social pressures of fitting in with their new group of friends. This combined with poor eating habits, curtailed sleeping hours, and drug and alcohol use, all contribute to feelings of sadness. There will be days that they may feel down or overwhelmed. These feelings can be normal. However, sometimes these feelings of sadness can turn into more overwhelming emotions.

Mental health issues are common. NAMI reports that 1 in 5 young adults will experience a mental health condition. Thirty percent of college students report feeling so down the previous year that they found it difficult to function.

It is important that your child finds a good emotional outlet. When looking to unwind or clear their heads, they should try to take some time for themselves. Engaging in an activity that makes them feel good is always a great start. Whether it be taking a walk, going to the gym, FaceTiming a friend from home, or getting lost in a good book.

Sometimes it may be difficult to assess whether whatever your child may be feeling is an early sign of an emerging mental health condition or part of a normal response to a new situation. Make sure to educate yourself about the services that the school provides so you can help guide them to the best resources possible. Knowing that they have support at home and at school is essential and will provide ease to your family during this very exciting and new time!