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  • Jacqueline Siempelkamp

Supporting Our College Students' Mental Health

It’s no surprise that our late teens and early twenties are a pivotal time in life. Throw a significant transition in there (read: college) and it can be a lot for anyone. This season in life brings excitement, change, and hope; but it can also bring uncertainty, anxiety, and stress. This population is at risk for real mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and even suicide. In 2019, 60% of college students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety, and 40% reported severe symptoms of depression. These statistics don’t even touch on the pandemic, which has caused mental health concerns to rise on a global level.

In addition to serious mental health issues, we need to consider “normal” parts of college impacting a student’s mental health as well. It is a lot for someone to leave their family unit, balance a full schedule, navigate relationships (new and old), and come into a new phase of young adulthood. While these changes are planned and expected, the transition takes some getting used to and it’s not easy. Common concerns for college students might include difficulty managing academics, trouble maintaining healthy habits such as eating and sleeping, financial concerns, and even increased substance use.

College students have a lot on their plate—it’s important for us to put ourselves in their shoes and understand all they’ve got going on. Here’s what we can do to help:

· Discuss expectations: Parents especially need to have a conversation with their child about how family roles are going to shift after high school. Parents can communicate their expectations, and so can the college or almost-college student. Ideally this talk would happen before the student leaves for school, but expectations may change and can be revisited at any time. What do each of you want involvement to look like in each other’s’ lives? What kind of support do you each expect to give and receive? Asking these types of questions can increase understanding on both sides and help prevent confusion and conflict later on.

· Encourage communication: There are two parts of communicating effectivelyshare what you need in a clear manner, and also be willing to listen to and understand the other person. College students need to communicate with many individuals, whether it be parents and other family, friends, roommates, and professors, along with other members in campus involvement, extracurricular activities, internships, and jobs. Communication is key and learning this skill now will be invaluable for a student’s college career and onward. Encourage direct communication, even if doing so might be difficult. So much can be solved with an honest conversation. If a student is communicating their needs to you, remember to listen without judgment. They are the one in the situation and validating how they are feeling can open the door for increased comfort in being vulnerable with one another.

· Emphasize self-care: College students have so much they are keeping track of, and self-care can be one of the first things to get dropped. Remind your student that they can learn time management skills, so they don’t have to go without eating or stay up all night long working on an assignment. Help normalize taking breaks—encourage building in time for basic needs, as well as prioritizing activities that bring joy. Students can get caught up in building their resume’ and forget to make time for themselves. Filling your own cup is crucial.

· De-stigmatize seeking help: This cannot be stressed enough—everyone needs help at one point or another. College is a high-stress time and talking with a mental health professional can be a great way to manage stress and learn skills to help adjust to all of the changes that are going on in this time of life. We might think back to our own college experience and remember how many parts we were trying to balance. When we reflect, it might be easier to imagine how prioritizing our mental health could have made things less overwhelming. If you notice a college student struggling with their mental health, share with them that they are not alone and help find them support. College counseling centers are a great start and often have resources to fit students’ needs.

College can be one of the most exciting times in life, and also one of the most stressful. It is without a doubt that this population goes through so much change in such a short period of time. Adjusting to these changes can certainly bring on periods of feeling overwhelmed—not to mention contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Let’s be present for our college students and remind them they’re not alone. Normalizing how they feel and showing support is a great place to start.

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