Behavioral health issues are a serious problem among college students. What can you do to help your child balance mental health and academics?

It is easy to romanticize the college years as a time of independence, adventure and self-discovery. For many students, college is all of these things and more. For others, however, a variety of factors, including adjusting to living away from home, coping with rigorous coursework, dealing with feelings of loneliness due to separation from friends and family, managing finances and navigating the complexities of new relationships, can lead them to develop behavioral health concerns.

Serious Consequences

Sign Up for E-News

Anxiety, stress and depression are the top three behavioral health issues reported by college students, according to the annual survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. In a 2017 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, nearly 40 percent of college students admitted experiencing debilitating depression during the previous year, and nearly 70 percent said they had felt overwhelming anxiety during that time.

Conditions such as depression and anxiety can disrupt students’ lives with a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Declining academic performance
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Headaches
  • Inability to focus
  • Loss of motivation

Behavioral health issues may drive students to engage in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse, or to drop out of school. Depressed students are more likely to commit suicide, the third-leading cause of death for young adults.

Uncovering Hope

As a parent, the best thing you can do for a college student struggling with mental illness is to remain engaged and available to listen when your child needs to talk. Encourage him or her to:

  • Engage in regular, moderate exercise
  • Make time to have fun
  • Learn effective time management. Help him or her prioritize tasks, divide large assignments into smaller portions and focus on completing one project at a time
  • Stay connected to loved ones and friends

In addition, encourage your him or her to seek medical treatment, which may involve counseling, as soon as possible, either at an on-campus health center or in the community. With time and compliance with treatment, he or she will, hopefully, be able to focus on enjoying the best parts of the college experience.

“Parents can play a crucial role in helping college students cope with behavioral health issues simply by communicating with them regularly and taking their feelings seriously. These can be wonderfully effective means of support,” says Ketaki Vaidhyanathan, MD, associate medical director of the Department of Behavioral Health at Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center

The Harm in Hovering

Does constantly worrying about your teenager drive you to check in on him or her via phone calls or text messages multiple times a day? Are you unable to stop yourself from making even the smallest decisions for your child? If so, you may be a helicopter parent.

Love and a desire for children to be happy drive many helicopter parents’ über-involvement in their children’s lives, but hovering can stunt children’s ability to think and act independently, regardless of affection or merit of your intentions.

“Researchers have documented consequences of helicopter parenting, including evidence of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, in children as young as 3 and 4 years old,” said Daniel Cruz, Ph.D., ABPP, behavioral scientist and psychologist at the Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside's Family Medicine Residency Program. “These conditions can continue through early adulthood and into the college and working years.”

How could one break out of the over-parenting pattern? The first step, Dr. Cruz said, is acknowledging a problem exists.

“Next, parents must understand what’s contributing to their helicopter parenting—fear and anxiety, mental catastrophizing [the worst case scenario will happen if I’m not involved] — and take immediate steps towards behavioral change,” he said. Simple parent reminders and actions, such as not jumping to conclusions, recognizing consequences and understanding age-appropriate development, will help parents calibrate their level of engagement.

“Helicopter parents should seek professional help when the parent/child relationship suffers as a result of over-parenting or when their repetitive thoughts, worry and actions interfere with their daily life, such as increasing levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia and interference with work and other obligations,” Dr. Cruz said.

Surviving Back-to-School Strain

The fall academic semester is nearly here. For many young adults, particularly first-year students, the prospect of jumping into the school routine is laden with anxiety.

“College students may experience a variety of stressors,” said Ki-Sook Yoo, M.D., psychiatrist at Mountainside Medical Center. “They may be anxious about separating from family and friends and changing communities and states. They may also feel the weight of expectation from themselves and others to succeed academically. Many students set the bar for themselves quite high, which heaps a lot of pressure on them.”

Anxiety can be a lonely feeling. As a parent, your job is to help your child understand that back-to-school stress is common.

“Parents need to let their children know it’s OK to miss home or be nervous about academic performance; these feelings are normal,” Dr. Yoo said. “When young adults hear this reassurance, there’s more of a chance that their feelings of unease will dissipate. If they persist, students should seek help from a mental health professional.”

Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center features a variety of behavioral health services, including care for individuals 18 and older who need a higher level of mental health care than conventional outpatient services. For more information, visit MountainsideHosp.com.

About Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center

Mountainside Medical Center has been serving Montclair and its surrounding New Jersey communities since 1891. The hospital provides patients immediate access to innovative and effective treatment alternatives at specialized centers within the hospital that focus on imaging, women’s health, cancer care, surgery, obesity, stroke and chronic kidney disease. Mountainside Medical Center is designated as a Primary Stroke Center by the NJ State Department of Health and Senior Services and is one of only a few community hospitals licensed by the State to perform emergency cardiac angioplasty. To learn more about Mountainside Medical Center visit www.mountainsidehosp.com.