Study: Parents may be unaware of their student’s mental health

When kids transition from one level of education to another and begin a new stage of their academic journey, there are a number of emotions and questions that may cross a parent’s mind — are they eating well-balanced meals? Are they staying up too late? Are they getting their homework done and staying on top of their classes?

However, new data show that the transition from high school to college may usher in even greater changes than parents might expect — and one important question that parents should be asking (but may not be) is, how is their mental health?

The second annual Student Behavioral Health Report reveals college-age students are far more likely to struggle with a mental health concern, compared to what parents believe is the case.

In fact, 55% of college students surveyed reported concerns of anxiety, where only 35% of parents said their college-age child had those concerns. It was the same for depression and suicide ideation:

  • 41% of students self-reported concerns of depression, but only 18% of parents
  • 13% of students self-reported concerns of suicide ideation and intent, but only 4% of parents

Other key findings include:

  • 42% of college students say they (or a roommate or friend) sought help for a mental or behavioral health concern in the past year.
  • Financial stress emerged as a significant factor in college students’ mental health — more than 2 in 5, or 44%, say “financial concerns” is the top factor negatively impacting their mental health.
  • For both high school and college students, more frequent conversations with parents about their mental or behavioral health were strongly correlated with feeling supported and/or understood.
  • Among college students who say they struggle with mental health concerns, more than 4 in 5 say they doubt their ability to graduate on time.

“For families, communities and educators, youth mental and behavioral health remains an urgent priority, and understanding the gaps between parent perceptions and student experiences, especially in the transition from high school to college, is essential in addressing these challenges successfully,” said Dr. Donald Tavakoli, national medical director for behavioral health, UnitedHealthcare.

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

1. Look for warning signs

Mental health issues may begin at an young age. When you check in on your student, listen 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. The report noted that more frequent discussions of a student’s mental health were associated with more positive perceptions of their parents’ tone and feelings of support — and that relatively few students felt their parents’ tone during these conversations was “awkward.”

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. High school students said their third reason for not seeking out help was that they “don’t know where to find mental or behavioral health resources,” and 1 in 4 college students said their top reason for not seeking out help was that it was “too expensive.”

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

“The Student Behavioral Health Report shows that parents and trusted adults can make a meaningful impact on students’ experiences, with more frequent discussions about their mental and behavioral health correlating with higher rates of feeling supported and taking positive action,” Dr. Tavakoli said.

The second annual Student Behavioral Health Report is commissioned by UnitedHealthcare and conducted by YouGov, surveying a total of more than 2,000 U.S. respondents including:

  • parents of college students
  • college students
  • parents of high school students
  • high school students

In addition to behavioral health offerings, advocacy and resources, UnitedHealthcare offers helpful parent and youth conversation starter cards that are designed to help parents talk to their kids about mental well-being and spark conversations that move past one-word answers.

Find more information about behavioral health resources.

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