A letter of acceptance to college, which usually arrives in March or April before high school graduation, is a wonderful milestone for young people and their parents. Thus begins an exciting and sweet passage: commencement festivities, packing for life on a college campus, some goodbyes and hugs, moving into a dorm, making new friends, and beginning a promising academic journey into adulthood.
After more than a year of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, the smiles will be wide when students arrive this fall for what is expected to be normal in-person classes at Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.
It is very easy to overlook—or even be clueless about—what for some students will become a dark side of leaving the family nest: anxiety, depression, sexual assault and hazing violence, misuse of alcohol and drugs, academic struggles, relationship problems, and more.
At Cornell, the proportion of undergraduates who reported that they were unable to function academically (missing classes, unable to study or complete homework) for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety increased from 33 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2019. Many reports indicate that college students are struggling even more with their mental health during the pandemic.
College orientation materials usually provide some notice about the risks and the resources for staying safe and healthy, but they may have minimal impact amid the excitement of transitioning to college.
So, a word of advice for college students, particularly for incoming first-years:
Educate yourself about the mental health challenges that you may face, and learn about the ways that you can address those challenges if and when they arise.
The same advice goes for parents. Know what your college kid is getting into.
To help, Forefront Suicide Prevention, a center at the University of Washington, recently produced A Guide for Parents and Families: Supporting Your College Student Through Mental Health Challenges.
This essential booklet was written by Forefront’s Marny Lombard, who has gained a profound understanding of the challenges that college students may experience. Lombard’s son Sam struggled for many years with depression and died by suicide in 2013. He was 22 years old and a college senior majoring in architecture. Lombard wrote the Guide to provide parents and families with the knowledge that she needed but did not find.
“Mental health problems among young adults are more common than many families realize,” the Guide says. “In fact, one in three college students experiences a mental health issue, most commonly anxiety or depression. Major life changes such as adjusting to college life and experiencing added academic stress can set the stage for the onset of mental health issues.”
According to the Guide, parents and family members sometimes struggle to understand their student’s mental health concerns—or even to recognize that their student is in distress. Learning that their student is having suicidal thoughts can create extreme stress for the family.
Forefront’s Guide provides authoritative resources and recommended reading to help parents and families of students who are struggling with their mental health. It can help them to stay in touch with their students and know when and how to seek help if needed.
The Guide asks parents to gradually change the tenor of their conversations with their students, listening more and speaking less. Using compassion, setting aside judgment.
Guide sections include: “Ways to Keep Conversation Flowing”; “Ask about how things work at your college”; Finding the Right Therapist,” “What To Do When Your Student is Struggling”; “About Medications”; and “If Your Student Is Thinking About Suicide.”
“Suicidal urges, in particular, should always be taken seriously and never dismissed as a ploy to gain attention,” the Guide says, noting that “asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide will not plant the idea in their mind.” The Guide provides valuable information about engaging with a suicidal student and helping them get professional help. Suicide is preventable. “The vast majority of young people who consider suicide will move through this difficult time,” the Guide says. “Many will begin to learn how to manage their mental health.
Finally, the Guide advises parents to check in regularly about their students’ stress levels and warns against delaying treatment when the need is clear. It cites data showing that 75 percent of the time the onset of mental illness occurs by the age of 24.
“The longer the delay between the onset of mental illness and the start of treatment, the more difficult it can to successfully treat these issues,” the Guide says. “The good news is that you can learn how to support them and help them manage the underlying stressors.”