College Mental Health: A Checklist For Parents

By Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Ph.D.

college kids drinking beer

College mental health: Approximately four million students will enroll in college for the first time this year, and the transition to university life can be overwhelming. Coupled with the known fact that many mental health issues often emerge during an individual’s early twenties, with the onset of most mental illnesses peaking from ages 18-21, this is a critical time for students and a crucial time for you, the parents, to have a mental health checklist.

When students have mental health crises, parents often feel overwhelmed and unsure about how to help. Awareness and treatment are essential in order to prevent crises that result in failing classes, dropping out, severe emotional issues or, far worse, suicide. Among the most common problems seen with college students are anxiety disorders, depression, alcohol and drug use, psychotic episodes, and relationship difficulties, among others.

Parents frequently need help addressing their adult child’s mental health and educational needs simultaneously. So, as a parent, what can you do? Here are some tips for supporting your child as he or she navigates the unfamiliar waters of university life.

Prepare Your Child

It is very likely that your child, or one of her roommates or friends, will encounter a mental health issue while she is away at college. Talk with her about mental health and let her know she’s not alone. Keeping lines of communication open will help her to feel comfortable that she can come to you with any problems she may experience without fear of being judged.

Anticipate Increased Exposure to Alcohol

Problem solve in advance for the challenges your child may encounter when navigating increased exposure to alcohol and other substances in campus settings. Important topics to review include binge vs. responsible drinking; pre-partying; the role of the “designated driver”; party pacts to stay safe and together; alcohol amnesty and related policies; hazing and the definition of consensual sex. Broaching these issues with parental support, will empower your child to make wise decisions on their own. More than a third of US first-year college students do not drink alcohol at all. Explore campus sober living options, peer support groups and substance-free student programming as specific strategies for maintaining sobriety.

Have a Plan

All students, but particularly those who have already experienced mental health issues, should have a plan in place in case things get too difficult to handle. If your child is already under the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist, make plans to continue that care with a clinician closer to college. Have regular check-ins with family members and friends to monitor any changes, and make an appointment with the campus mental health center to determine what services are available. Students can pre-register for disability support services to access helpful accommodations. Having a solid plan in place will make it easier for your child to obtain mental health services should they become necessary.


Stay in Touch

Make time for regular phone conversations in addition to texting your college-aged child. It’s easier to hear in his voice when something is bothering him than it is to read into a text message. Keep an eye out for symptoms of depression, including sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, irritability, restlessness, sleep difficulties, loss of appetite, suicidal thoughts, unexplained aches and pains, and tearfulness. A sudden drop in academic performance can be another sign that support is needed.

Forget Stigma

If your child is experiencing mental health issues, prioritize getting help over the fear of tarnishing her transcript or reputation. For some students, a leave from school is needed to recover and get back on track. Each college has its own policy about granting medical leave, so you should contact the student health center or the Dean of Students’ office to find out the procedure for taking a temporary leave of absence. Purchasing tuition insurance can ease financial stress in the event of a crisis and leave of absence.

Encourage Healthy Habits

It’s easy to let good eating, sleep and exercise habits fall by the wayside while living away from home for the first time. Many students sacrifice physical health for an extra hour of studying or staying out with friends. However, the importance of a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise cannot be overstated, particularly as they relate to overall mental health. Rather than lecturing your student about eating her vegetables, ask how she feels when she eats well or when she sleeps poorly. Help her to connect self-care with emotional stability.

Learn About College Mental Health Services

Call the student counseling center and ask about the range of services they provide. Make an appointment to talk with the Counseling Center Director or other professional staff member. Many college mental health services will be limited, so it’s important to see what may be available off-campus at a local counseling center or hospital as well. Many centers keep a list of convenient off-campus providers who work well with students.

Allow Mistakes

Perfection is not a realistic goal, and it’s important to let your child know that you support him or her no matter what. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of life, and we can learn from them. A perfect GPA isn’t worth it if it comes at the expense of your child’s emotional well-being.

For additional information on managing a student mental health crisis, visit McLean Hospital’s College Mental Health Program webpage.

Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, is the director of the College Mental Health Program and an instructor in psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.