College student holding booksSupporting your college student’s mental health. It’s so challenging but so important. When thinking about sending our big kid(s) off to college, we often feel a mix of excitement and anxiety: excitement about the many opportunities that await them and anxiety about the unknown and inevitable challenges they will face. Will they binge drink? Will they be riddled with anxiety about academics? Will they think that they can’t make friends? A recent summary by The Clay Center for Healthy Young Mind reported that about 33% of college students experience levels of depression that make it difficult for them to function, about 80% feel overwhelmed, and 73% experience some form of a mental health crisis during college. So, if you believe in statistics, our mom radar is right on target here. Our kids are likely to struggle in college despite the many wonderful things they will also experience.

What do you think your big kid will do if they need some help? The data shows that they will not reach out. The Mayo Clinic states that around 75% of students who experience mental health concerns do not seek support, which can increase their risk of dropping out of college, misusing substances, and/or performing poorly in their academic pursuits. So, what is keeping students from accessing services they would benefit from? Research shows that barriers to using these services are feelings of self-reliance (e.g., ‘It’s not that bad’ or ‘I can handle it on my own’), logistical concerns about not knowing how to access services, concerns about the negative impact on their job or school performance, and/or negative stereotypes about what it would mean if they were to access services. They also feel they just do not have enough time. 

Image of lecture college hall and students in seatsThis is all pretty scary, so I often say to moms, “Knowledge is power if you use it to plan ahead.” If you know ahead of time what things might keep your big kid from seeking help, you can let them know that struggles are normal and talk with them in advance about the barriers to getting help. You can also talk with them about things like different strategies to manage stress and the importance of self-compassion as well as whatever else might help them along!  In my experience, parents who focus only on the good stuff often leave their kids unprepared when the bad stuff happens. 

Another important thing to consider discussing with your almost-adult-kid is that mental health services are not just for crises. There is a myriad of ways that mental health services can help support college students before things get bad. They can be used preventatively to help them build on their strengths, learn more about who they are, and/or learn coping strategies that can help them succeed in school and in life. Being in therapy can help your big kid feel more connected in relationships, improve their communication, and/or process challenging events. Therapy can help your child cope when they’re struggling, but it can also be used to help them grow and thrive in the good times! 

When students are already feeling overwhelmed, taking even one thing off of their plate by finding out about their university’s services and how to get started can make a world of difference! You can help them connect to services in a crisis, but there are very often self-help resources available as well. Your child may be able to use these without even seeing anyone in the university counseling center.

Here are some things you can look up ahead of time about on-campus mental health services: 

  1. What types of services are offered 
    1. Psychotherapy
    2. Career Counseling
    3. Groups
    4. 1:1
    5. Crisis Intervention
  2. Costs for students
  3. Number of counseling sessions allowed (there is usually a limit)
  4. Where the counseling center is located
  5. How to get started
  6. Self-help resources
  7. Confidentiality

College students working on computersYou can also research off-campus resources. Some schools will provide a list of options. You might want to consider things like:

  1. What your insurance benefits will cover
  2. Costs
  3. Transportation needs

Knowing all of this information in advance can help you to have conversations with your big kid about transitioning to college life and/or when their first crisis hits. There is nothing pleasant about trying to scour the university website for information in the middle of a difficult conversation or crisis!

Many moms “front load” their children with services by connecting them to a therapist for mental health services or a coach for support before they even arrive on campus. Now that we live in a world full of online services, this is easier than it has been in the past!

Finally, although no one wants to think about this possibility, it is important to be prepared in case of a mental health crisis, particularly where there is a safety risk. Again, preparing yourself in advance by knowing the on- and off-campus resources ahead of time is far better than scrambling to get information when things are acutely difficult. Familiarize yourself with the services available to your child on and nearby campus. Know the emergency phone numbers for their area. Look into any national resources that might help, such as the national suicide prevention lifeline, where you can text or call 988 (in the US). 

In my experience, moms who focus only on the good stuff often leave their kids unprepared when the bad stuff happens. If you would like more information about the challenges college students face and how you can be prepared, you can go to my website to learn about my specialized coaching and on-demand webinar: “COLLEGE UNCOVERED: 10 Things Moms Need to Know About College Life”  You can also learn about services that I offer for your big kid! 

Contributor Statement: Olivia Knizek ( contributed to the research and writing of this blog. Olivia is a PhD student in counseling psychology interested in athlete mental health, performing artists, and resiliency from trauma.