Tips to help support the mental health of your college student

As the holiday season nears, many college students across the country are wrapping up their first semester of the school year. This also typically means finals season, which often comes with loads of stress as students work to complete projects and cram for exams. When they finally make it home for the holidays, it’s time to rest, recharge and catch up with friends and family.

This down time may also serve as a good opportunity for parents to check in on their child’s mental health and well-being.

A recent survey shows parents may under-estimate the frequency and severity of their student’s mental health concerns. For example, parents were twice as likely to report their child did not experience a behavioral or mental health concern in the last year, compared to what students self-reported. This disconnect is more than just a generation gap – when it comes to depression, substance abuse, eating disorders or suicidal ideation and intent, not knowing what students are going through may have serious implications.

“There seems to be a disconnect between student reality and parental perception of student mental health,” said Dr. Donald Tavakoli, National Medical Director for Behavioral Health at UnitedHealthcare. “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.”

The stats on college students reveal a growing mental health crisis:

  • Nearly 1 in 3 college-age adults have experienced a recent mental, behavioral or emotional health issue
  • 8 in 10 say they experience frequent stress
  • Nearly a third have been diagnosed with anxiety
  • Roughly 1 in 4 have been diagnosed with depression

Here are some ways you can help address mental health with your child:

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. Ask questions

Mental health isn’t always an easy topic to discuss. As a parent, it can be helpful to approach the conversation with empathy and curiosity. Consider asking questions that encourage them to share experiences rather than respond with “yes” or “no” answers, such as:

  • “How are you handling the balance between school and social life?”
  • “Can you tell me about some friends you’ve met and what you like to do together?”
  • “I’ve noticed you’re not feeling yourself lately, can you share what’s on your mind?”

3. Validate their feelings

Let your child know it’s OK to feel upset, anxious, scared or angry. Avoid arguing or passing judgment and try to remain open in the conversation. Work to listen more than talk. It may also be helpful to encourage them to talk with another adult they trust, or a mental health professional.

4. Create a plan

Make sure your child knows what resources are available to them if they need help. Students cited concerns about cost  plus questions about access and wait times as their main reasons for not getting help. Look into your family’s behavioral health insurance resources. Knowing that information can help your child learn how to access mental health support at school or on campus. Also, pay close attention to virtual care options, which many college students said they would be open to using.  

For instance, UnitedHealthcare Student Resources offers a 24/7 crisis line answered by licensed clinicians for support with mental health concerns. Eligible students also have unlimited access to virtual counseling services with board-certified psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and counselors — at no additional cost.1

While conversations around mental health may not be easy, they are incredibly important. It’s helpful for parents to lead with empathy, openness and loving support.

“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, they still need loving support and guidance. Being there with answers to questions may make it easier for them to find effective

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