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How to know (and what to do) when your student needs help

Visits home are a chance for parents to observe changes (usually positive but sometimes troubling) in their college student. Here is advice from The Jed Foundation’s Medical Director Victor Schwartz, MD about what to look for, adapted from the UniversityParent Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year.

By Victor Schwartz, MD

For young people, the college years are a time of growth, maturation and increasing independence, and of developing a more defined sense of self. This can involve testing boundaries and trying out different values and identities.

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What’s exciting for students, however, can cause anxiety for parents (who may be aware that many major psychiatric illnesses begin to manifest during late adolescence and young adulthood). When do personality and behavior changes reflect typical (and mostly positive) experimentation and when do they reflect emotional struggle or even impending mental illness?

As a parent, you have known your college student longer (and in all likelihood better) than anyone else and therefore are well positioned to recognize when things may be moving in a worrisome direction. That said, if your student attends college far from home, your contact will be limited. Based on what you are able to observe, in person or by phone or Skype, the two most important indicators of possible trouble are change and functioning.

QuoteOf course, always listen. If your student tells you he is struggling, overwhelmed, not functioning, can’t manage, or is having thoughts of self-harm, take him seriously.

Inevitably things change to some extent after your child leaves for college, but dramatic and rapid changes are important to note. For example:

  • A student who was gregarious and friendly but now seems quite withdrawn, or who was neat and fastidious and now is disorganized and sloppy, may be struggling.
  • Do you sense deterioration in major areas of functioning such as sleep, nutrition, self-care, orderliness, and personality style?
  • Are you hearing about missed classes, atypically poor performance, changes in social interactions, or dropping out of involvements and commitments?

Rapid, dramatic change that impacts your student’s functioning is a significant indicator that there could be a serious problem.

Start by initiating a conversation — tell your student that you are concerned (tips for how to do this can be found here). And of course, always listen. If your student tells you he is struggling, overwhelmed, not functioning, can’t manage, or is having thoughts of self-harm, take him seriously.

How can you help? Tell your student what you are noticing and discuss how he thinks he might get help. Is he aware of campus health, mental health and other support resources? There may be drop-in counseling available; an RA (Resident Advisor) or coach can be a point of contact.

Despite privacy protections for your student, campus support services and clinicians are able to speak to parents to receive information and concerns. If you are worried that your student may be in serious distress or may not follow up, you can call the Counseling Center or Dean of Students office and convey this. If your student agrees, the school can share information about him with you.

Most school websites provide guidance for parents about how to proceed. If you are worried about your student, trust your instincts and take steps to help.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for additional tips, insight, and to help your college student succeed. You may also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our Community Forum and College Parents’ Facebook group.

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