Our daughter is leaving for college. She is feeling anxious and a little sad about leaving her friends. Part of me thinks this is natural, but all the news about kids having mental health struggles in college is concerning. Any suggestions for a worried parent?
First, yes, it is natural for your daughter to experience anxiety and sadness around significant life transitions. Teens rely so much on their peers to be mirrors to reflect their emerging identity and independence — the prospect of losing that can be profound.
Your impression of the mental health risk for college students is also accurate. At YFS (Mercer Island Youth and Family Services), we continue to see more 18-24-year-olds with mental health challenges and requests for pre-college counseling. National trend data suggests there has been a real, measurable increase in adolescent mental health issues over time. For example, the National Institute of Mental Health found rates of major depressive disorder among adolescents increased from 8 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2016.
That said, it is worth pointing out is that while there is legitimate concern, still, most college students will not have a mental health crisis.
My comments so far are likely doing little to reduce your concerns, WP, but my intent is to arm you with information that will help you talk with your daughter about a wellness plan for entering college. Collaborative problem solving like this can make a difference and help reduce anxiety for you both.
This plan first should require that you continue parenting through college. This means reinforcing family values about health, sleep, avoiding substances and safety on phone calls, texts, social media and during visits home.
Next, work with your daughter to identify her college’s counseling department, health clinic and other resources where she can turn for help. Empowering her to seek these resources before classes start will make it easier for her to utilize them if needed. Agree that she keep the information in an easily accessible place, like her phone or dorm room.
Talk with your daughter about the signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression and substance abuse and agree that she will seek immediate help if something comes up. Be open to learning about her own strategies for a successful transition.
Finally, several studies point to the importance of the first semester of freshman year in setting habits for the rest of college. Consider signing an agreement with her that she abstain from drugs/alcohol, get decent sleep and follow some basic health strategies during this critical period.
WP, some thoughtful discussion, smart parenting and a concrete intervention plan can make a real difference in providing a mental health safety net away from home.
Cynthia Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services.