College Isn’t a Great Time for Everyone

Like most kids entering college, my daughter experienced a swirl of emotions when we dropped her off at her New England liberal arts university. She was excited, scared, nervous, anticipatory, expecting the best, hoping that it didn’t turn into the worst. And when my husband and I returned to California, we were relieved that the sad, departing moments were behind us.

College Isn't a Great Time for EveryoneOur relief didn’t last long, however: We got an email from the school telling us that a student had committed suicide by lighting herself on fire at one of the university’s playing fields. It was devastating to us; the desperation that poor student must have felt. While my daughter didn’t know her, and didn’t seem as affected as we were, it made us realize that taking your child to college is just the beginning of a new kind of parental involvement — one that means keeping a watchful eye on your child from afar.

Launching Their Own Lives

In addition to being on their own for the first time, college freshmen are often pressured to drink, experiment with drugs and/or have sex. What’s more, college is a prime age for depression as well as other types of mental illnesses (namely schizophrenia). A number of mental illnesses first appear between the ages of 17 and 25, in fact, says Victor Schwartz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University and medical director of The Jed Foundation, a non-profit that promotes emotional health among college and university students. “[A mental illness may come] at the same time they are away from home for the first time, they may be having their first relationship and they also may be thinking about their life goals for the first time. These are all very poignant experiences,” says Dr. Schwartz.

According to a national survey, “The America Freshman: College Norms Fall 2014” from the Higher Education Research Institute, depression rates among college freshmen are the highest they’ve been in the past 30 years. The proportion of students who said they frequently felt depressed increased to 9.5% — 3.4% higher than in 2009. Jean Twenge, PhD, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me, attributes this rise, in part, to social isolation. “Even though students are more in touch because of social media, there is less in-person interaction than in the past, ” she says, adding that there’s also unrealistically high expectations for students today. “Kids have been told that if they try hard and believe in themselves anything is possible,” she explains. “This leaves the potential for disappointment and dissatisfaction if those expectations aren’t fulfilled.”

Before They Leave

As a parent, one of the best things you can do is to talk about ground rules for communication before your child leaves for college. “Set in motion how often you plan to be in touch,” suggests Schwartz. “And then also remember that school has lots of vacations during which your child might come home.” The ultimate goal is to find the right balance for you and your child, he says: “Each family is different in terms of communication preferences, so use your judgment regarding what makes sense and what would be comfortable for you and your child.”

That said, research shows that college students who report “consistent but moderate contact with their parents have higher psychological well-being than those with over-involved parents,” says Mandi Silverman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “Additionally, parents of college students who were overly involved had children with lower levels of satisfaction in regards to family life.”

Dr. Silverman describes “consistent but moderate contact” as talking daily with your child for a half-hour, or every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. “Being overly involved, on the other hand, would be a scenario where the child felt overwhelmed by the frequency and duration of contact,” she says.

Of course, if your son or daughter has a history of depression or another mental disorder, including substance abuse/addiction, you’ll have to go beyond setting communication parameters. In this case, you’ll need to make provisions for support at college; for example, reaching out to the school’s student-counseling center or starting to work with a local clinician, Schwartz adds.

Staying Close When You’re Far Away

Even if you touch base with your child on a regular basis, it can be hard to tell at a distance if he or she is feeling sad or falling into depression. In general, if a child is functionally well academically, they are doing well emotionally, says Schwartz, who suggests asking whether he or she is going to class, eating well and taking care of him/herself. It’s also important to note if there’s something different about the way your child sounds on the phone, he says. “If you can’t get answers from your child, seek out resources at the school – the dean of students or someone in charge of student affairs or housing” if your child lives on campus. If you think there’s a mental health issue, talk to the school’s counseling center. “While they can’t give you information because of privacy laws,” Schwartz says, “you can give them information and ask them to check into how your child is doing, and go from there.”

College is an emotional time for parents and students alike and it’s common for your child to occasionally feel sad or anxious; these emotions typically subside after a few days. Clinical depression, on the other hand, is something that persists and interferes with daily functioning and regular activities, says Silverman, noting the following warning signs of depression:

  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Irritability or frustration, even over small things
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in things he/she once enjoyed
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Anger outbursts
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, rumination on past failures or self-blame
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering important things
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
  • Crying for no apparent reason
  • Unexplained physical symptoms, such as back pain or headaches

“If you suspect that your child might be dealing with depression, talk to him or her about what’s going on and listen. Encourage your child to express his or her feelings while making sure to be empathic and non-judgmental,” advises Silverman. “Also, encourage him or her to make an appointment with a mental health professional as soon as possible.” College counseling centers may include some or all of these options:

  • A diagnostic evaluation
  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Group therapy or support
  • Peer counseling (where students with similar difficulties come together to offer support and advice)
  • Medication management

In addition to seeking psychological treatment, Silverman says your child can take the following steps to feel better:

  • Take it one day, or one step, at a time. If possible, major decisions — changing majors or schools, moving or even dropping out of a class — should be avoided. Preparation for bigger tasks, like a term paper or major exam, should be broken down into smaller steps so the task feels more manageable.
  • Get involved. Encourage your child to look into more activities that he or she enjoys; this can provide a healthy distraction from negative thoughts or feelings. Research has shown that physical activity can be particularly helpful and soothing.
  • Seek friends and family for support. Remind your child that this new environment provides him or her with an opportunity to meet new people and create new friendships. Friends can be helpful in adjusting to a new environment.

What About Medication?

If your daughter or son is on medication when leaving for college you’ll need to make sure he or she has contact with a nearby clinician or the student counseling center. “And if your child is put on an antidepressant medication when he is at college, the clinician should be cognizant of timing,” says Schwartz. It can take time to find the right dosage and medication to ease symptoms, for example, and the stress of adjusting to a new living situation may make the situation more complex to manage.

Close monitoring is especially important during the first four weeks of taking a new medication, Silverman adds: “Should your child have a prescription for an antidepressant, his or her prescribing psychiatrist [or the one at school] should closely monitor for any worsening in depression, emergence of suicidal thinking or behavior or unusual changes in behavior, such as sleeplessness, agitation or withdrawal from normal social situations.”

While communication with your child is key during this initial adjustment period, make sure that it is regular but not necessarily mandated or for long periods. When adolescents and even young adults feel required to engage in contact, that may ultimately hinder your ability to maintain regular, open communication. Encourage your child to come to you should he or she ever experience difficulty, confusion or feelings of being overwhelmed. In this way, you can provide support and guidance as necessary. Says Silverman, “At the same time, be a supportive ear as they engage in independent decision-making related to their health and well-being.”

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