By Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Ph.D.

college student with therapist

Be sure to learn more about what resources are available at your child’s college or university to help support their mental health

Approximately four million students have enrolled in college for the first time this year. This transition to university life can be overwhelming for many young people, particularly for those with mental health issues. At our hospital alone, we provide mental health treatment for more than 600 college students each year.

The late teens and early 20’s—the traditional college years—are known to be the time in life when serious mental illnesses are most likely to manifest themselves. Combine that with being away from home for the first time and adjusting to other aspects of college life. Together, it can be a recipe for psychological vulnerability for many students.

The college years become a critical time for students and 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 to preventing crises that result in failing classes, dropping out, or severe emotional issues. Among the most common problems seen with college students are anxiety disorders, depression, alcohol and drug use, psychotic episodes, and relationship difficulties. And that doesn’t include many other mental health concerns.

Parents often need help addressing their adult child’s mental health and academic needs at the same time. So, as a parent, what can you do? Here are some tips for supporting your child as they navigate 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 they are away at college. A 2012 National Alliance on Mental Illness survey of college students found that 27% of all respondents lived with depression, 24% with bipolar disorder, 11% with anxiety, 5% with attentiondeficit/ hyperactivity disorder, and 1% with a substance use disorder.

Talk openly with your child about mental health. Let them know that they are not alone. Keeping lines of communication open is very important. This will help them to feel comfortable that they can come to you with any problems they may experience without fear of being judged.

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. Your local mental health care provider can help you with that.
• Have regular check-ins with family members and friends to discuss any changes in your child’s behavior.
• 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 with your college-aged child. Don’t limit your communication to emails and texts. It’s easier to detect when something is bothering them by listening to their voice than it is to interpret their mood via 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

Don’t let stigma get in the way of getting help for your child. If your child is experiencing mental health issues, prioritize getting help over the fear of tarnishing their 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. 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 is another thing to consider. It 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.

The importance of a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise cannot be overstated, particularly as they relate to overall mental health. Avoid lecturing your student about eating their vegetables. Instead, ask them how they feel when they eat well or when they sleep poorly. This will help them to connect self-care with emotional stability.

Learn About College Mental Health Services

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

There are a variety of accommodations that a college can make for a student. These include:

• Preferred seating
• Additional breaks
• Separate exam rooms
• Written exams instead of oral presentations
• Use of a tape recorder
• Deadline extensions
• Completing work at home/dorm room

Contact your child’s college to determine their process for requesting accommodations.

Allow Mistakes

Perfection is not a realistic goal. It’s important to let your child know that you support them, 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.


Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, is the director of McLean Hospital’s College Mental Health Program and an instructor in psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Pinder-Amaker has over 25 years of experience in college student mental health treatment, administration, and policy. She lectures and conducts workshops throughout the country on strengthening continuity of care and on how to bolster communication between campus- and community-based systems, eliminate barriers to mental health treatment, and better support marginalized students.

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