A Parent’s Guide to College Student Mental Health

Sending kids off to college is an exciting experience for many parents. Naturally, our focus is on the wonderful opportunities they will have, as we look with pride upon their promising passage into adulthood. But these stressful times require parents to also fully grasp the serious mental health challenges their students may face, and be equipped to provide support.

DOWNLOAD: A Parent’s Guide to College Student Mental Health (PDF)

What do parents need to know?

Though some may hide or downplay it, rates of depression and anxiety are high among college students. Many students carry suicidal thoughts. Sexual assault is prevalent among college students. Hazing violence as an initiation rite at fraternities and some student organizations is a serious problem. All of these conditions pose greater risks for students who arrive on campus already with a mental health disorder. College psychological counseling centers are typically overwhelmed by demands for appointments, and navigating community mental health services and insurance coverage can exacerbate the stress.

In short, student mental health can be a complicated matter, and failing to deal with it adequately can lead to serious consequences.

Another in an occasional series of articles about student mental health. For more information, go to The Sophie Fund’s Student Mental Health Page

“Mental health problems can affect many areas of students’ lives, reducing their quality of life, academic achievement, physical health, and satisfaction with the college experience, and negatively impacting relationships with friends and family members,” says the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). “These issues can also have long-term consequences for students, affecting their future employment, earning potential, and overall health.”

Making matters worse, research is finding that Covid-19 pandemic conditions have caused a spike in stressors among college students. A survey of 2,086 college students conducted at the beginning of the pandemic by Active Minds showed that 80 percent felt Covid-19 had “negatively impacted” their mental health, and 20 percent said their mental health had “significantly worsened.”

A study in Spring 2020 showed a moderate-to-severe level of depression in 48.14 percent of survey participants, a moderate-to-severe level of anxiety in 38.48 percent, and 18.04 percent with suicidal thoughts. More than 70 percent indicated that their stress/anxiety levels had increased during the pandemic.

Another study in mid-2020 found that the prevalence of moderate-severe anxiety increased from 18.1 percent of first-year students before the pandemic to 25.3 percent within four months after the pandemic began; and the prevalence of moderate-severe depression increased from 21.5 percent to 31.7 percent.

Additional specific data to know:

  • 52.7 percent of college students surveyed reported that academics have been “traumatic or very difficult to handle,” and 19.8 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” in the past 12 months, according to the Spring 2019 National College Health Assessment; 9.3 percent seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, and 1.6 percent had attempted suicide.
  • 36.9 percent of surveyed college students seeking counseling in the 2019-2020 academic year had experienced “serious suicidal ideation,” (up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year who “seriously considered attempting suicide”), according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2020 Annual Report; 10.9 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.
  • 15.6 percent of female seniors (or higher) participating in the Association of American Universities 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct reported being raped (“completed penetration using physical force or the victim was unable to consent or stop what was happening”) since enrolling in college.
  • In the past month, 23.9 percent of college students used illicit drugs, and 33 percent engaged in binge alcohol drinking, according to a 2019 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

When parents do fully grasp the scope of the challenges, then they need to understand the risk factors and warning signs for a mental health crisis, and how to support their students if they should exhibit cause for concern. Help can range from staying connected with moral support and positive encouragement to evaluating and navigating mental health treatment options at the college counseling center, in the community, or back home during a health leave of absence.

McLean Hospital, a psychiatric teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, provides these basic tips for parents:

  • Prepare Your Child for the Unexpected
  • The Importance of Staying in Touch and Validation
  • Encourage Healthy Habits
  • Make Room for Mistakes
  • Have a Plan Focused on Student Mental Health
  • Learn About College Mental Health Services
  • If a Student Is Struggling, Get Help Immediately

List of helpful resources curated by The Sophie Fund for supporting your Ithaca-based college student’s mental health:

Mental Health

Risk Factors, Protective Factors, and Warning Signs, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Mental Health Conditions, National Alliance on Mental Illness


Parent and Family Guide: Supporting Your College Student Through Mental Health Challenges, Forefront Suicide Prevention

Set to Go: For Families, The JED Foundation

Set to Go: The Transition, The JED Foundation

A Parent’s Guide to College Student Mental Health, McLean Hospital

Mental Health in College, National Alliance on Mental Illness

Life on Campus, Mental Health America

What Parents Need to Know: #GoodforMEdia’s Guide to Social Media, Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, Stanford University

College Depression: What Parents Need to Know, Mayo Clinic

Cornell University and Ithaca College

Cornell University: Families of New Students

Cornell University: How to Support Your Student

Cornell University: Family Guide 2021-2022

Ithaca College: Guiding a First-Year College Student

College Mental Health Reports

Mental Health Review Final Report April 2020, Cornell University

“Commending Cornell’s Mental Health Recommendations,” The Sophie Fund

“Recommendations for Improved Student Mental Health at Cornell University,” The Sophie Fund

“Aiming for a Student Mental Health Gold Standard at Cornell University,” The Sophie Fund

Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health July 2020, Harvard University

Task Force on Student Mental Health and Well-being, Office of the Provost, February 2018, Johns Hopkins University

The Healthy Minds Study

Depression, Anxiety, Loneliness Are Peaking in College Students, The Brink, Boston University

Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2020 Annual Report

The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey 2018

National College Health Assessment Spring 2019, American College Health Association

Supporting Students: A Model Policy for Colleges and Universities, Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Students on College Campuses, Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Mental Health on College Campuses: Investments, Accommodations Needed to Address Student Needs, National Council on Disability

Behavioral Health Among College Students, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)


Suicide among College and University Students in the United States, Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Consequences of Student Mental Health Issues, Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Sexual Assault

2020 Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, Association of American Universities

Campus Sexual Violence, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)


Hazing in View: College Students at Risk, National Study of Student Hazing 2008

Substance Use

College Drinking, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Substance Abuse In College Students: Statistics & Addiction Treatment, American Addiction Centers

Recent Media Articles

“Did Covid Break Students’ Mental Health?,” October 14, 2021, The Chronicle of Higher Education

“College students struggle with mental health as pandemic drags on,” Washington Post, October 14, 2021

“A ‘Breaking Point’ in Campus Mental Health,”  July 15, The Chronicle of Higher Education

DOWNLOAD: A Parent’s Guide to College Student Mental Health (PDF)