As fall approaches, new students will arrive on college campuses with all sorts of things: luggage and school supplies, mini-fridges and sports equipment. But in the midst of moving preparations, many didn’t consider what tools they would need to support themselves emotionally.
In other words, what can they do to protect their mental health?
In 2017 interview of more than 700 parents and caregivers, more than 40 percent said they did not discuss the potential for anxiety or depression when they helped their teens prepare for college or high school. In addition, most educators stated that on-campus mental health care was not a priority when choosing a school.
But a large number of teenagers are struggling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionin 2019, more than 1 in 3 high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, which is 40% more than in 2009.
Once they arrive on campus, these problems do not disappear. Survey conducted in March by the company Inside High Ed and College Pulse found that undergraduate students were more than twice as likely to rate their overall mental health as “poor” (22 percent) compared to “excellent” (9 percent).
And new study using eight years of data from over 350,000 students on nearly 400 campuses, it was found that the mental health of college students in the United States was on the decline. More than 60 percent of students surveyed in the 2020-2021 school year met the criteria for one or more mental health problems, up nearly 50 percent from 2013.
Experts suggest that parents and teens will take proactive steps now to help plan for and maintain mental well-being during a major college transition.
Contact the advice center in advance
Consider contacting the college’s counseling center prior to arriving on campus. This is especially important for those who already have emotional distress or other mental health issues.
At SUNY Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York, the counseling center begins accepting registered students as early as August. 1, a month before the start of classes.
“Often students who come to us early have a lot of things they need to unpack,” said Melissa Martin, a licensed social worker and chair of counseling services at the school.
What services are provided?
Is there a maximum number of sessions allowed per year?
Is there a consultant on call 24 hours a day? If not, what emergency services are available after business hours?
What accommodations are provided by disability services for students with emotional disabilities?
What is the school’s vacation policy?
Are other types of support available, such as text lines or permanent consultants?
Check to see if the referral center provides off-campus referrals and make a short list of potential providers to have in your back pocket before you arrive at the school. This is good practice for any student, as it may be necessary to seek outside support if the school’s counseling center creates a waiting list. It’s also a good idea to review your insurance plan to see what type of coverage it provides. If you do not use your parents’ plan, compare campus health insurance with other options available like those provided by the Affordable Care Act.
“I guess it’s never too early to say, ‘Hey, I need help,'” Martin said. “You may not see someone else asking for help, but they may not be talking about it.”
Research found that colored students less likely than white students to use mental health services offered on campus, in part because of the stigma associated with providing mental health care, but also because of a lack of diversity among counseling staff.
Those looking for a color supplier may have to take on the added burden of finding an off-campus therapist, says Ebony O. McGee, a STEM professor of diversity and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.
“This student may not actually be doing this, which opens up the possibility of turning to unhealthy things,” she said.
Take advantage of other types of support
In addition to the counseling center, there are many resources available to students. Tutoring, academic and peer counseling, educational coaching, student activities, and career services can help support a student’s emotional well-being.
According to experts, communication with other students is especially important.
“College students report that loneliness, isolation and the feeling that they don’t fit in with society are very common and cause difficulties in the first year of college,” said John McPhee, executive director of The Jed Foundation.
Spend some time browsing the school’s extracurricular activities and clubs, and thinking about how to connect with others on campus. And consider getting a roommate, even if you have the option of living alone. McPhee added that it can expand your social network and help mitigate stressors.
Don’t discount school friends or anyone else at home—like a brother, sister, parent, or religious leader—who has been especially helpful.
“I often recommend making a list of the three to five people who support you the most in your life,” Ms. says. Martin said. “And when you don’t feel better at school, you know you can turn to one of them.”
One way students of color can protect their mental health is by taking a course in African American history or ethnographic studies and learning about some of the structural issues that contribute to stress, anxiety and depression, Dr. Jones said. McGee, who studied the emotional struggle experienced by successful black students.
“When many black and brown students have mental health issues, it’s often because of racial or gender racial experiences,” she said. “It’s about the environment that breeds alienation.”
Dr. McGee recommended looking for places of comfort and understanding. “Go to places and spaces where you are supported and glorified, not just tolerated,” she said. It could be an extracurricular activity or a religious organization, wherever you can find other marginalized students of color.
Practice basic wellness habits
Teens should take stock of how they eat, sleep and socialize in the summer before college, experts say, especially since they may have developed some unhealthy habits during the pandemic. If the basic needs of the student are neglected, it becomes more difficult to cultivate a healthier mental state.
Learning how to support yourself and taking steps to become more independent can also make the transition to college less frustrating. Practice budget management before arriving on campus; defending oneself in front of a teacher, doctor or coach; or spending time outside of your childhood home – perhaps with a relative or at a summer camp.
According to Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that provides therapy and other services to children and families with mental health and learning disabilities, senior year can be a “reckless ride,” especially in the age of Covid. “It’s just ups and downs, disappointments and hopes, and trying to figure out where they should be.”
He advised one teenage client (who averaged five hours a night in high school) to start sleeping eight hours every night this summer and monitor how much time he spends in front of screens. His client also switched to a healthier diet that included more vegetables and started exercising first thing in the morning because he knows his college class will start later in the day.
Alcohol is “another thing that we will discuss very openly with teenagers in the summer before going to college.” Anderson said. He added that many high school students already drink alcohol with friends, and in college they may feel pressure to drink or “before the game.” But teens can mentally prepare for these and other circumstances, including drug use and sexual situations, by setting boundaries now.
“How can we make sure you’re setting intentional goals around your limitations this summer and what you feel is safe for you?” he asks teenagers going to college. This conversation can sometimes make parents nervous. Anderson added.
“But if we can honestly talk about it with kids, they’re more likely to set these limits when they go to college because they’ve been practicing.”