Health & Safety

Mental Illness in College: What Parents Need to Know (And How They Can Help)

The late teens and early twenties are the time when many kids leave the nest to go to college.  They’re also the average age of onset for several serious mental illnesses, including bipolar, major depression, and schizophrenia. The stresses of college can act as a trigger for these conditions, making early detection even more important.  Yet many college students and their parents are unaware of the symptoms of these illnesses, and might not even realize that they can seek help until their condition has become serious. 

Here’s what every college parent can do:

Know the symptoms.  Common symptoms of mental illness include insomnia, extreme changes in energy levels and appetite, periods of distinctly depressed or elated moods that persist for longer than several days at a time, withdrawal from normal activities and friends, hearing voices, and irrational beliefs and fixations.

It can be hard for parents to recognize these symptoms if their son or daughter is living away from home, which makes it even more crucial for college students to be aware of what to watch for.  Many students who develop bipolar or schizophrenia in college don’t realize that their experiences are more than just “normal” stress until they’re in the middle of a severe episode—at which point the illness is even harder to treat.

Open up about your family’s medical history.  Mental illnesses like bipolar and schizophrenia are thought to have a genetic component.  It’s therefore really important to let your son or daughter know if there’s a family history of mental illness.  Not only will this help them recognize the symptoms sooner if they develop them, but by being open and honest about mental illness, you send the message that it’s OK to seek help.

Talk to other parents.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers a free 12-week “Family-to-Family” course for family members of people with mental illnesses.  The course is taught by trained family members and is a great way to learn about mental illness, meet other parents, and ask questions—any questions—about how to help a son or daughter struggling with a mental illness.

In the event that your son or daughter does develop a mental illness while at college, here are some things you can do:

Offer a level of involvement appropriate to their needs.  Mental illnesses vary in severity.  If your child is going through a mild depression, then simply being available to listen can be enough to help.  On the other hand, a student who has just had a psychotic break will need a lot of support, often long-term, and much more parental involvement.

Listen.  Take an interest in how your child is feeling and how she perceives the bigger picture.  Open-ended questions like “So how do you feel about this whole bipolar thing?” are a good place to start.  Questions like this show that you’re interested without making any assumptions about what it “means” to have a mental illness—and they gives your child the space to respond on her own terms.

Focus on recovery.  More than anything else, your child needs you to believe that she can recover from her illness, and remind her of that faith when she’s in doubt.  Mental illness can shake a student’s self-confidence and be very disruptive to the “normal” pattern of college life.  Help your child find counseling and support, and never stop reminding her that people with bipolar, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses can and do live happy, productive lives.

Hilary Smith is the author of Welcome to the Jungle:  Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out to Ask (Conari Press, 2010).  She was diagnosed with bipolar while she was in college.

Author of Welcome to the Jungle:  Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out to Ask (Conari Press 2010).  Now available in bookstores and online.

“VERDICT Among the wealth of works on bipolar, this title (wisely pulled from a Guns N’ Roses lyric) nicely stands out as a super reference for younger readers interested in or actually experiencing bipolar disorder and is also a valuable resource for professionals.” ―Library Journal

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