12:12 PM

You haven't seen your college student for a couple months. How can you check on their mental health?



It's not always easy to gauge the well-being of your college kid. But with mental health issues at crisis levels, it’s more important than ever. Here are helpful strategies.

When your child is away at college, worry has a way of creeping in. The dropoff weekend may have been all smiles and excitement, but how are they doing now that they're dealing with the grind of classes and assignments? To say nothing of the dreaded mid-term exams. When you're not there to observe their day-to-day behavior, how can you get a read on their mental health? Here are a few helpful conversations you can have.

Ask about their stress level 

Some amount of stress is to be expected in college, with its endless cycle of tests, projects, and paper-writing. Stress is tied to a specific cause, and goes away: A student may be stressed before a test, but afterward, the stress will dissipate. If a student admits to occasional stress, that's ok. But if he or she is "always" stressed, that's not stress – that's anxiety. And it is cause for concern.

Ask about things other than academics 

As a parent and payer of bills, you're undoubtedly curious about topics your child is studying and careers they may be considering. But balance and structure are keys to campus mental health. What do they do when they're not in class? Find out, for example, whether they belong to any campus clubs or go to sporting events or concerts. Or, if they're not into organized events – do they seem to have a group of friends? You can learn a lot from a friendly conversation. (And they might enjoy it more than a serious talk about their future career.)

You’re actually looking for something called “behavioral activation” 

Contributors to depression include isolation and inactivity—and sitting alone in a dorm room without any plans is an example of both. Getting out and doing something, whether it’s joining the quidditch team or just meeting up with friends for a meal, is the simplest remedy. Behavioral activation entails doing something, which creates a positive feedback loop and leads to a desire to do more. Most importantly, it staves off the (perhaps initially appealing) urge to do nothing. As a 2021 study noted, reduced behavioral activation can lead to a downward spiral, where a depressed student left to their own devices participates in fewer and fewer activities, essentially disengaging from campus life.

You're also looking for healthy daily habits 

These are harder to detect in a phone conversation, but you may be able to pick up clues. Lack of sleep, nutrition and exercise are the most common contributors to depression among college students. If you get the feeling that your child is falling down in any of these areas, gently suggest that they try to take better care of themselves. Today, we know it to be good advice for mental health, but it's classic parenting advice you probably got from your own parents.

Talk about signs of mental health emergencies to watch for among their peers 

It's what other parents would want you to do, and it's a way of covering the topic in a non-accusatory way. It's fairly common knowledge that statistics on college students and mental health indicate a crisis. According to the American Psychological Association, 60% to 73% of college kids are dealing with at least one mental health issue. If a student who is away at college is having mental health problems, those around may see the signs that parents may not. Parents can help build the safety net we worry our own kids might need by encouraging them to look after each other.

It’s time to talk to classmates if they experience:

  • Anxiety progressing to hopelessness or lack of motivation; they may be approaching a crisis.
  • Aggressive behavior, withdrawal from social situations, eating too little or too much, and paranoia. These are among the signs that a classmate needs help and may not be able to get it on their own.
  • And when a classmate thinks or talks about suicide, it's time to go to an ER.

Horizon members can visit the Horizon behavioral care website or call us at 1-800-626-2212 (TTY 711).

All this talking about mental health may seem daunting. There is some good news to bear in mind as you take that deep breath and broach the subject.

Mental health issues don't carry the stigma they once did 

A whopping 94% of college students say they wouldn't judge someone for seeking help for mental health, according to a recent survey by a Boston University researcher. That's remarkable. Today's college students have grown up in a different world, and many of the subjects that were taboo for their parents' generation (this means you) simply aren't.

These conversations are already happening among young people 

World-class athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who are in your child's generation, have been incredibly open about their struggles with mental health. And in fact, we live in a world where celebrities and influencers of all ages share their mental health stories in a way they didn't 20 years ago. It may even strike you as over-sharing, but it's a sign that discussion of mental health issues is becoming normalized. This paves the way for less awkward conversations between parents and kids, and helps to build that safety net of students looking out for students.

Your relationship with your kids is likely to improve when they’re away 

According to The Atlantic, 60% of college students say they get along better with their parents since going away to school, with a quarter saying the relationship is “much better.” The feeling of independence releases the pressure of the previous parent-child dynamic, where the former tends to wield authority over the latter on a daily basis. You’re getting closer to talking to each other as adults. And talking is good. An NIH study found that college kids who talk to their parents on a weekend day are less likely to binge drink (another symptom of depression) that evening.

College is a time of transition for parents and kids alike. This is one article in a series that speaks to helping your student make the most of their health during this important time.