It’s high stress time on campus. Students who are getting ready to graduate are freaking out about the terror of the “real world” (who can blame them?). They’re worried about getting jobs or getting in to grad school; they are worried about paying back their student loans; they are worried about moving home.
Then, on the underclassman front, we have students stressed about getting internships, about where they will live next year and with whom, about looming final exams, about relationships and about dozens of other life challenges.
The good news for us is that most of this is situational stress and situational stress abates as soon as the irritant goes away. You cram like mad for an exam. Then you take the exam and mentally move that worry to the done column. The trick is to learn to manage the stress and cope in a way that facilitates problem solving rather than stifles it. You’ve got tons of school work to do and can’t cope so you smoke weed. That’s bad. Same scenario and you seek out tutoring and study well in advance of a difficult final. That’s good!
Mental health wasn’t talked about when I was a college student. There were no counseling services and the rare student who was unable to cope with the stress and anxiety of college life quietly withdrew from school and recuperated at home. Those days are gone. Universities have recognized that college life is fraught with stress and have created support systems to help students in crisis. Society no longer shames people with mental illness and students are educated to seek help.
All that should mean we are winning the battle against mental illness, but it’s complicated. Students come to college with serious mental health conditions. The college years – traditionally ages 18 to 22 – are also times when mental health problems surface. Is your student aware if there is a family history of mental illness? Don’t be afraid to talk about this with your students – they might be relieved to know this important fact.
Parents may wonder how they will know whether their student is suffering from anxiety, stress, suicidal thoughts or other mental illnesses and what to do for them. The best advice if you are worried about your student’s mental health is to not be afraid to ask questions. Our desire to respect our almost-adult’s privacy sometimes gets in the way of important inquiry. Ask your student about their sleep habits, about their level of stress and their coping plan. Are they exercising? What are their eating habits?
Here on campus our counseling services include education and treatment. We have workshops about stress, groups that focus on eating disorders, anxiety, grief and other issues. We have online mental health assessments that students like to use to gauge their alcohol dependency, eating disorders, depression and anxiety. For some students, these serve as a wakeup call that they need help.
Now that students are getting ready to come home for summer vacation, you should look for changes in behavior, personal hygiene and attitude.
Katherine Evans, Ed.D., our director of Counseling and Psychological Services, says the one big red flag for parents is any whiff of suicide. “Learning that the student is thinking of suicide, has rehearsed a suicide or has attempted suicide requires a proactive response.”
In addition, Dr. Evans recommends the resources of the JED Foundation, which has a program called “Set to Go,” which helps families and students understand the stresses of university life.
We know our children better than anyone else. We know their habits, their quirks and their usual reactions to life’s challenges. That why is so important for us, the parents, to be aware of the warning signs of a mental health condition. The JED foundation lists 10 specific signs that should prompt action:
1. Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks;
2. Severe, out-of-control risk-taking behaviors;
3. Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason;
4. Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight;
5. Seeing, hearing or believing things that are not real;
6. Repeatedly and excessively using drugs or alcohol;
7. Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping habits;
8. Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still;
9. Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities; and,
10. Trying to harm oneself or planning to do so.
“There is no one thing that will definitely alert parents to problems and students often go out of their way to avoid disclosing problems to parent,” noted Dr. Evans. Yet, she says, parents generally “are supportive and play an important role in helping our students get or stay in needed treatment.”