/ Mar 02, 2020

Mental Health Epidemic: Helping College Students Thrive

Dr. B. Janet Hibbs knows all too well the stresses so many college students face. Her son took a medical leave from college to manage his escalating depression. Even though Hibbs is a family psychologist, she sought guidance from Dr. Anthony Rostain, an expert in the field of adolescent psychiatry. Together, years after her son’s recovery, Hibbs and Rostain have co-authored a book to help other families, The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years.

In this latest Q & A, Allison Gilbert, senior writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a stirring conversation with Rostain and Hibbs about their findings, including how college life has significantly changed over the years.

Authors Hibbs and Rostain, experts on college mental health

Allison Gilbert: College life can be hard for any student. What do you see as making the experience the same and different today?

Anthony Rostain: College has always been a challenge. Students have always had to learn how to regulate their lives and construct their daily schedules. And they do so while receiving inputs from all over the place — academic tasks, social tasks, constantly determining what’s important right now. Students who are new to college have had fewer opportunities to practice these skills so they’re less prepared to handle them.

One specific change is that adolescents with learning differences may feel particularly uprooted because they’ve grown up with unique levels of scaffolding — being given extra time to take exams and do homework. That same structure may not be guaranteed in college and many students aren’t equipped to be their own advocates and secure extensions for themselves.

Janet Hibbs: We also know college students today are dealing with more anxiety and more depression than ever before, and well-meaning parents may be contributing factors to this emotional unrest. Our culture today is scared to let teens fail or even make mistakes. A generation ago, college life was all about autonomy. Now, families are in constant communication, fueled in part by parents’ concerns and fears about the future.

AG: In what other ways is the college experience different today than 20+ years ago?

BH: Peer culture has completely changed. A student’s reference point is no longer just his or her roommates or the kids down the hall. Because of social media, students are part of a culture that is forever expanding and a community that is forever awake. They face the need to repeatedly check in and stay in touch. This contributes to depression and feeling left out of events. It also leads to a state of being distracted and not getting enough sleep. 

[AG note: It’s always a good idea to set tech limits before students leave for college. For strategies, read Managing Screen Time Together and How to Be a Role Model in the Digital Age. For tips on falling asleep faster and staying asleep, check out Encourage Teens to Sleep Well.]

AR: Another reason today’s college experience is different is the current culture surrounding sex on and off campus. Because of today’s legally charged climate, there’s unease about the potential consequences of sexual relationships.

[AG note: Consent is an important part of all relationships. Learn exactly what consent is and is not.]

BH: I agree. I’d also factor in the pace of academics. That’s also different. If you don’t go to class, if you don’t complete every assignment, it seems harder to catch up. There are higher expectations in the classroom: the types of texts being read are more sophisticated and the level of analysis that’s expected is more demanding. My son was overwhelmed.

And there’s one last difference.

Marijuana today is stronger. This is important to recognize because while some parents may not be too concerned about occasional marijuana use, the habit may become alarming because of the drug’s new potency.

Peer culture has completely changed.

AG: What are some of the warning signs that a student may be in trouble? Not just in terms of drugs or alcohol, but their overall emotional and physical well-being?

AR:

  • If it’s four months into school (or the end of the first semester) and your daughter is complaining about not having friends.
  • If your son is feeling the need to drop multiple classes.
  • If your student is not sounding right on the phone or looking right in person or online.

[AG note: Are you worried your child has depression or anxiety? Read this article to learn how to spot the warning signs.]

AG: How can parents determine what’s happening with their child who’s away at school?

BH: Many schools make it possible for parents to log into their student’s account and see how they’re using their meal plan. In many schools, parents are able to review an electronic record of how often their student is going into cafeterias for meals. This may help parents determine if their student is eating, or eating enough.

AR: It’s also important that college students sign a consent allowing parents to review their academic records. [College officials are constrained by FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.] We’re not suggesting parents have the right or responsibility to micromanage. This is just one tool families can use to ensure students are staying afloat. Another even more vital tool is nurturing the kinds of family relationships that stir positive and helpful conversations.

AG: When parents decide their college student needs help, what should they do first?

AR: If the support needed is academic, most college campuses offer tutoring services. If the problem is social, encourage them to talk with their Resident Advisor. Often RA’s are uniquely positioned to recommend clubs and activities where students can find their peeps.

[AG note: If the challenge is related to drugs or alcohol, please read this for information and resources].

BH: Ideally, parents should be talking with their teens before issues develop or when they’re small enough they can be addressed more easily. Remember, some college students don’t want their parents involved in their personal lives. If that’s the case, I encourage parents to ask their son or daughter the following question: Is there another adult you’d consider talking with? The decision you’re suggesting they make is empowering. And oftentimes giving this kind of space makes it easier for teens to come back to their parents when they’re ready.

[AG note: If conversations in your family don’t unfold in ways you prefer, try these helpful strategies. Based on scientific evidence, we know the most effective parenting style is the one that strikes a balance between being involved and encouraging adolescents to work through life’s lessons on their own.]

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