Tips for parents on supporting a college student’s mental health

One in 4 college students say they don’t know where to find mental health services, according to the College Student Behavioral Health Report commissioned by UnitedHealthcare. Many of them also say they worry their mental health will affect their chances of graduating on time.

“This is more than exam anxiety or roommate relationship problems,”­­ said Dr. Donald Tavakoli, National Medical Director for Behavioral Health at UnitedHealthcare. “Students are reporting depression, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts at very high rates.”

Perhaps just as concerning, the survey also reveals parents of college students may not be aware of the frequency or seriousness of these mental health concerns.

“There seems to be a disconnect between student reality and parental perception of student mental health,” Dr. Tavakoli said. “That’s part of the problem. But that also means there’s an opportunity to close the gap — and for parents to learn more about how they can help become part of the solution.”

Consider these three tips for helping your student with their mental health:

1. Look for warning signs

About 75% of mental health issues begin by age 24, but they sometimes surface after high school. When your student is home from college, watch for a sense of hopelessness. A marked change in behavior and withdrawal or social isolation can be signs of trouble. Slipping grades can also be a signal since a student’s mental health and academic performance are often connected.

2. Have a candid conversation

Calm, clear and honest communication is essential in a conversation about mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says one key approach can be listening more and talking less. NAMI also suggests reminding your child that mental issues can be like physical ailments — and that addressing problems early may make them happier and healthier.

3. Educate yourself on resources

Students cited concerns about cost and questions about access and wait times as their main reasons for not getting help. Look into your family’s behavioral health insurance resources and share what you learn with your child. Pay special attention to virtual care options, which many college students said they would be open to using.

One more thing

Your child may be watching how you handle tough situations, so model healthy behavior. Seek professional support if you need it. Your example may make your child more willing to do the same.

“Parents and other trusted adults in a college student’s life play a critical role in supporting their mental health,” Dr. Tavakoli said. “While this is a phase where your child is transitioning into adulthood and learning to take personal responsibility, that doesn’t happen overnight. They still need loving support and guidance. Being there with answers to questions may make it easier for them to find effective help and feel better sooner.”

For more answers to frequently asked questions about student insurance, visit

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