Add one more item to your college student’s to-do list this fall: Make sure they know where the campus counseling center is located, the scope of its services and how to make an appointment. Don’t wait until a mental health crisis comes up. Do it now. The stakes are much too high.
According to the Jordan Porco Foundation, a non-profit that promotes mental health check-ins with college students on campuses nationwide, one out of 10 college students contemplate suicide. COVID-19 has only heightened the situation. A recent CDC study reported that ⅓ of U.S. high school students struggled with mental health issues and feelings of sadness during the past two years of the pandemic; two out of five teens experienced feelings of sadness and hopelessness; and one in five teens considered suicide. However, the study also revealed that teens who felt connected to adults or peers were less likely to attempt suicide.
Like every major life change, the transition from high school to college requires a period of adjustment.
“Students will experience positive and negative stress,” explained Carrie Haubner, Psy.D., staff psychologist, student counseling services at Illinois State University in Normal.
“Emotions come and go and are part of the transition. Just because they are emotional and tearful one day, it might not mean they need an appointment at the counseling center. It’s across time. Is there a similar theme? Are there more phone calls that involve tears, sounds of unease, anxiety, unrest, tension or sadness, that don’t necessarily shift as students are in school for a longer amount of time, where social connections take shape? A change in routine can become more routine across time.”
While freshmen are adjusting to college life, the students Angelica Yi, post MSW clinical fellow at UC Berkeley counsels who are approaching graduation wonder, where do I go from here? How do I find a job? Do I move back home? Then there are first generation students. They don’t have a roadmap, because their families don’t share the experience.
Regardless of the stage of life they’re in, Yi said students ponder what they want to do for a career and where they find purpose and meaning in life. The fallout from all this stress is many students presenting with anxiety and depression, perfectionism and imposter syndrome, Yi said. She also sees students with ADHD and ADD struggling with eating disorders.
Give your freshman four to eight weeks to adapt to school, Haubner advised. If they haven’t adjusted by then, it’s time to speak with the campus counselor. Also, be observant. If you notice changes in behavior, mood, sleep, appetite and functioning, indications of hopelessness or suicidal ideation, it’s urgent they seek assistance. If you’re not sure how to approach the subject with your teen, call the counseling center for advice on how to have the conversation.
A Mental Health Crisis
University counseling centers have experienced an increase in demand over the last 10 years, Haubner said, mostly driven by violence in communities and schools, overparenting, pressure to perform academically and social media—which has made teens more digitally connected and interpersonally isolated. Increased feelings of loneliness is a common thread among students, Haubner said.
Counseling at UC Berkeley and most universities is free. Campus counselors assess and treat a broad range of social, behavioral and emotional concerns, as well as connect students to other resources. For example, during an initial meeting, a counselor will determine whether they can assist the student or need to connect them with a mental health provider in the community for long-term counseling—individual counseling at universities is typically short-term. Still, 99% of students at ISU complete treatment in 12 sessions. But most students prefer group therapy, because healing happens in community, Haubner said.
“Group becomes like a laboratory…” she explained. “It’s an opportunity to try out new behaviors, make mistakes, talk about it and refine learning in a way that might not necessarily have the same stakes associated with it outside of therapy. Group therapy helps develop supportive relationships, and skills within relationships, all in one place.”
Pre-COVID, anxiety and depression were the two most common issues students presented in group, Haubner said. Post-COVID, she has seen a jump in concerns about academics—motivation, procrastination, concentration and isolation.
How Parents Can Help!
“Parents can help take away the pressure from students by giving them a healthy perspective, letting them know that the primary reason they’re in college is to learn,” said David Antonides, M.A., faculty chair of student development and counseling services at Harper College in Palatine. “If you don’t take away any material from a class, you’re still learning from it, even if it’s learning how to deal with a difficult professor or how to learn from failure and pick yourself up.”
As a parent, Antonides said your role is to temper expectations. “Goals are good but unrealistic goals are set up for failure, he said. “Talk to your student about realistic goals and what they hope to accomplish.” Also, be an observer and ask them, how are things going? Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not a professional. Have you ever thought about talking to a counselor?”
Support your student if they say, “Now is not the time for therapy,” Yi advised. Be aware of the programs available and suggest they join a club or academic group and gain support that way.
What Makes Counseling a Game-Changer?
Students all show similar struggles but they each think they’re the only one who feels that way, Yi explained. Counselors can provide normalization by letting them know they are not alone.
When students say, “I feel better. I feel connected. I don’t feel so alone,” it’s a sign of healing, Haubner said. Another indicator is improvement in daily functioning.
Unfortunately stigmas still exist that make students hesitant to seek counseling. Often the campus counseling center is their first encounter with mental health services, Yi explained, and they come in undecided, wondering if therapy would be a good fit. The benefit is, they can ask questions and find out. It’s a low-pressure way to get started.
If you are suicidal or suspect someone else is, call the 9-8-8 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.