With classes in full swing, new college students navigating the shift from home to college as they make decisions about courses, career and a new social life may feel stressed at times. For parents, college matriculation for our children brings mixed emotions: pride, hopefulness, excitement, and a little anxiety. For eighteen years we were there physically and emotionally, making decisions for them, helping them with choices about college
It is important parents recognize that their children still need them, but not in the same way. Rather than MAKE their decisions for them, we need to serve as a support, to be there when they need us. Both my sons are going to college locally and want their parents to give them the space accorded to a college student.
Parents worried about how to balance their child's independence with a natural concern for their well-being, can work to maintain consistent communication – during good times and bad – and to have a high level of suspicion when things are not going well.
You may have heard about recently published suicides in local schools and across the country. Victims are high-achieving well-liked students, as well as those not doing so well and see bleak future prospects. They may appear happy or successful from the outside, but deep down, they are struggling.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for the young adult age group (15-24) and data suggest that the incidence of suicide is on the rise, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To help myself and other parents prepare for this real risk among college students, I consulted with two physicians at Children's who have expertise in this issue: Jeremy Esposito, MD, MSEd, an emergency medicine physician and fellow of Children's Violence Prevention Initiative and Anik Jhonsa, MD, a psychiatrist focused on reducing child and adolescent suicide risk.
They agree that these patterns of suicides among college students cries out a need to change how we deal with suicide at universities, including de-stigmatizing the issue and increasing access to mental health services.
As the consumers of higher ed, parents are in a unique position to effect change. Here is perspective from Jhonsa and Esposito to help inform a parent's action:
Ask your child's college if it has integrated its mental health services with campus health services.
Many colleges do not have their mental health services integrated with campus health services. Integrating mental health services could reduce some of the stigma (including fear that classmates, parents or teachers will find out) and increase awareness on how to access services. It also makes it easier for primary health care providers to transition students they feel are at risk directly into appropriate care.
If you haven't yet, have a conversation with your child about expecting new stresses in college.
Regardless of whether you think he or she is at risk of depression or suicide ideation, talk about this with your child. For example: "I am so excited for you, but you may feel a whole new level of stress as you adjust and that's normal. There are campus resources to help you, and I am always a phone call away."
Ask if the college provided new students information on the common sources of stress on campus and how to access mental health services during orientation.
Major life transitions can be very stressful and students often arrive on campus with expectations of what college and life on their own will be like. During orientations, colleges should let students know what are common sources of stress that college students face, how to get help and, in particular, letting them know it's okay to seek help if they are struggling.
If you have concerns about your child's mental health, leave a message or give information to a campus health services clinician about your child.
While a clinician cannot discuss the specifics of a case with an outside party without a signed "release of information," including even acknowledging that his or her patient is receiving services there, information can flow in the other direction to the clinician.
There is nothing that stops parents from leaving a message or giving information to a clinician about their child. Clinicians are able to hear that information and, if applicable or helpful, use it to provide better care for their patient.