Fewer students than ever before are reporting above-average emotional health as college freshman, according to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute. For parents who are decades removed from their own college experiences – or never experienced college altogether – this news can be alarming.
In order to understand the sources of stress and anxiety that weigh on students’ emotional health, it’s important for parents to consider the big picture – the current economic landscape – and the little picture – your student’s personal needs and struggles.
Unemployment affects nearly 5 percent of the fathers of college students who were surveyed and nearly 9 percent of their mothers. This contributes to the need for more students to take out loans and stress out about financial aid or burdening their parents with college costs. Even for students whose families are unaffected by unemployment, the pressure of finding a good job after college is a source of stress as early as freshman year.
However, the stress many college freshmen reported started before even enrolling in college. Twenty-nine percent of students surveyed said stress began in high school. When demanding schedules, high academic achievement, family and social life problems and securing college admission and scholarships affect your student’s senior year of high school, it can take more than a summer to fully recuperate from the stress.
If your student had high expectations for himself in high school, it’s likely that he still holds those – and they contribute negatively to his emotional health. Seventy-five percent of students surveyed said their drive to achieve and perceived academic ability was above average.
Parents understand better than almost anyone what makes your student tick. Our fears and motivations as children often transfer to what stresses us out and drives us as adults. Knowing the struggles your student has had in the past will likely shed light on what adds stress to his life today – i.e. lack of self esteem, fear of rejection, people-pleasing tendencies, rebellion against authority, etc.
College can magnify students’ challenges and struggles, because while they’re surrounded by other students and new people, it can also be isolating. Forming close bonds takes time, and most college freshman haven’t formed new, close relationships yet. This makes their relationship with parents and family even more important as they need a support system to cope with stress.
The first step in helping your student improve emotional well-being is to understand the sources of stress. Once parents understand that, you can help your students create a personalized health plan to include some of the following tips:
Many students experiencing depression and anxiety need more than a parent’s listening ear. Universities have mental health services that offer counseling and group sessions, as well as other forms of support. While 60 percent of the clients of mental health services at universities are female, males also need these services and should be encouraged to seek help as well.
Remind your student that down-time and resting is a necessary part of life that he should make a priority, along with his studies and other commitments. Also, encourage him not to fill up free time with volunteering, tutoring, or helping others. While altruism can help boost emotions and a sense of self-worth, it also adds to your student’s work level and expectations. He should have activities that he enjoys doing and aren’t a burden.
Looking around campus, your student might think he’s the only one struggling with depression or stress. People in general – but especially in college – put on a “happy face” to look like they have it all together and have life figured out. Remind your student that everyone has difficult days, feels down, worries about the future and experiences varying levels of stress. When these feelings become overbearing, it’s OK to seek help and know that he’s not alone.
If your student worries about finding a job after graduation, the state of the economy or the financial stability of you or your spouse as you help him pay for college, remind him that he can’t control those things. Stressing about that which is out of his control is futile, but taking action in the areas that he can control will help put his mind at ease. Remind your student that the national landscape will look different in three or four years, when he graduates. And while the national deficit is out of his hands, his own wallet is in them. Help him budget, plan wisely and get a handle on his finances. Mapping out an academic plan will make the next several years of school less overwhelming.