Talking about mental health could save a college career or even a life.
Have you ever talked with your high school senior about mental health? In my experience, parents may discuss majors and housing, not major depression and anxiety. However, I encourage parents to talk about these issues because rates of mental health problems continue to soar on college campuses. According to the recently posted results of the American College Health Association fall 2017 survey, one of three college students have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental health disorder in the last year, one of five for anxiety and one of six for depression. One of eight college students seriously considered suicide. Since 2011, rates of anxiety have doubled and rates of depression have risen by fifty percent.
By talking about mental health, parents can reduce stigma and let children know it is okay to pursue treatment. The earlier your college student seeks help for a mental health problem, the more quickly he or she will recover. As a psychiatrist providing clinical care to college students for over twenty years, I have seen too many young adults delay seeking treatment because they feel they have some kind of moral weakness rather than a biological and psychological condition that can be treated with lifestyle changes, therapy, and if needed, medication.
Here is what I recommend every parent tell their high school senior about mental health before they go to college.
- Pressures – I am very proud of you as you prepare for your college journey and I know you will do a great job. I also want you to know that college students today can feel a great deal of academic, social, and financial pressure. If the pressure ever gets overwhelming, you can call me anytime, day or night.
- Problems – If there is a problem you feel uncomfortable talking about with me, don’t hesitate to call another family member. I won’t be insulted – I just want you to get help. I support you talking with a therapist at the campus counseling center if you need another sounding board.
- Academics – I want you to do well in school, but not by sacrificing your health in the process. Regular sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet are necessary for good mental and physical health. I understand there might be times, like during midterms and finals, that you sleep less, but this should not happen on a regular basis. If you find you don’t have time for good self-care, meet with a wellness or success coach on campus who can teach you how to manage your time better. You could also speak with your academic advisor about taking a more balanced course load.
- Social connections – Meeting people and making friends can be more challenging in this age of social media when people might be communicating online rather than face to face. Join one or two clubs, talk with people in classes, go to your professor’s office hours, and make at least one or two good friends. Having strong social connections can improve your mental health, physical health, and GPA.
- Anxiety – Anxiety is the number one mental health problem on campus. It’s normal to feel anxious about exams and meeting new people, but if your anxiety is so high that it is hard to sleep and concentrate, your heart sometimes races, you feel like it’s hard to catch your breath, and your stomach is always upset, I want you to talk with a therapist. If therapy does not reduce your anxiety, you can also meet with a psychiatrist, who may prescribe medication. Participate in activities to lower your anxiety like yoga, exercise, and meditation.
- Depression – Sometimes students can feel sad and homesick during their first days of college. But if the sadness never leaves, it becomes harder to get to class, you stop spending time with friends, or you feel there is no hope that things will get better, I want you to call me and also see a therapist and/or psychiatrist. Depression is highly treatable.
- Alcohol – I know most college students drink alcohol, and I would prefer you didn’t drink. But if you do drink, I want you to be safe. Avoid binge drinking – four or more drinks for a woman and five or more for a man in one sitting. Heavy drinking in college is associated with worse academic performance, and of even more concern, can contribute to physical assault, sexual assault, injury, and death.
- Drugs – Avoid drugs in college. There is a great deal of controversy about risks and benefits of marijuana, but until there are more studies, I would prefer you not use it. Most marijuana now has a much higher THC content than it did thirty years ago, potentially causing more problems with anxiety and paranoia. Studies show regular marijuana use decreases motivation and GPAs in college students. As for other drugs on campus – cocaine, opioids, and LSD – these drugs put your life at risk and I never want you to try them.
- Psychosis – While psychotic experiences occur far less frequently than anxiety and depression in the college years, there can be an increase in these experiences during young adulthood. Psychosis means you have perceptual disturbances, like believing things that may not be real or hearing voices that are not there. If this happens, I don’t want you to be scared. But I do want you to let me know and also speak with a mental health professional to see if this is a temporary experience or a long-term mental health problem requiring treatment.
- Resilience – During your college journey, you will experience many highs and a few lows. With your inner strength and the strength of the many people you connect with, I know you will emerge with great knowledge, courage, and creativity.
©2018 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.
My book, The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students, was recently released.