Mental Health Caregiving: College Students & Young Adults

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Mental Health Caregiving: College Students & Young Adults

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By Molly Sullivan-Reeves, INCITE Consulting Solutions

With rates of mental health issues among college-age students and young adults on the rise, colleges and universities have been taking steps to provide better mental health support. Findings from a 2020 survey on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on college students’ mental health suggest that this age group is considered particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns. Mental health symptoms can affect students’ motivation, concentration, and social interactions—important factors that influence their success through college. 

The pandemic has contributed to even higher rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness among college students. Ninety-five percent of college students have experienced negative mental health symptoms as a result of COVID-19-related events according to a recent survey by BestColleges.com. Almost half of survey respondents reported that these circumstances had a direct impact on their education. The main issues they cited were difficulty with concentration, disruption to sleep patterns, and increased social isolation; fifty-seven percent of college students confessed that they have felt “overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year. 

If a young adult has moved back into the home due to their school switching to virtual classes through the pandemic, among a myriad of other reasons, what can parents and guardians do when they find themselves caregivers again to their college-age children who are struggling with their mental health? 

Here are ten signs that indicate a college student may be experiencing mental health issues.

  1. Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks.
  2. Making plans or attempting to harm or kill themselves.
  3. Extreme risk-taking/out-of-control behaviors.
  4. Sudden, overwhelming fear for no apparent reason.
  5. Significant weight loss or weight gain or other disordered habits related to eating.
  6. Seeing, hearing, or otherwise experiencing things that aren’t real.
  7. Using drugs and alcohol in an addictive or harmful way.
  8. Sudden or drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits.
  9. Unusual difficulty concentrating or sitting still.
  10. Fears and anxieties that interfere with daily activities and impact quality of life.

How can you support a college student’s mental health?

1. Talk about mental health, and encourage them to seek help. Only nine percent of college students seek professional, on-campus support even though 72 percent of campus presidents have reallocated funding to support mental health services. Talk to your child about mental health just like you would about physical health. If a student you know is struggling mentally, let them know they are not alone: There are a lot of resources out there, and you are committed to helping them. What if there are no mental health services on campus? Support groups offered by organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or Mental Health America (MHA) are a good option for all age groups. They can also be a wonderful support for young adults (and their parents) who are not enrolled in school at all.   

2. Listen, empathize, and be compassionate. Perhaps your child missed out on part of his or her college experience due to the pandemic or another extenuating circumstance. As a result, they may not have been able to attend significant rituals and milestones like graduations and awards ceremonies. Maybe it is just social events in general that your student misses. Much of his or her mental distress may be tied to grief and loss. So, empathize and be compassionate. "That’s what people dealing with grief and loss need most," say the team at Evolve Treatment Centers on helping a college student with pandemic-related stress, "Your job as a parent is to act as a stable, calm, grounding voice of wisdom and comfort.”

3. Foster independence. Talk through the fears your child may have about going back to campus. Remind them that they have the tools they need to make good decisions. Make sure they know what resources are available to them both in-person, on campus and virtually. Many students who returned to living with their families, especially during voluntary quarantine, felt less independent and more distracted.

4. Encourage reengagement in social life. A key role friends play in your child’s life is helping them stay motivated and encouraging them to put effort into learning. Those who graduate on time usually graduate in a friend group, and those who don't may have lost their social connections or they drop out. If your student isn’t part of any clubs or groups, encourage them to seek out these activities. It could be a campus ministry, like Athletes in Action; an intramural sport; a club activity, like chess or drama; or tutoring local high school students. There are many options both on and off campus for students to participate in social activities. Volunteering is a great way to get back into the practice of socializing that is rewarding for both the giver and the receiver. 

5. Promote resiliency by modeling it. Show resiliency through your own actions as a parent/guardian. Model how to: Take responsibility, practice self-management and self-care, handle social relationships, and exercise self-control. Make sure your student is eating enough, drinking enough water, and getting outside. Help him or her acknowledge whatever they may be feeling at a given time and help them realize that their emotions, while perhaps intense, are transitory: The pandemic will end, they will graduate from college and/or go back to work, and a sense of normalcy and routine will return. If a young adult needs professional medical help or counseling, make sure they know there isn’t anything “wrong” with them. Many people need treatment during times of isolated or prolonged stress in their life. It won’t last forever. 

For more information on caring for a child with mental health concerns, read Mental Health Caregiving: Children & Adolescents


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