Supporting Mental Health From a Distance: When Should a Parent Intervene?
For most young people, going to college is the first time living away from home. This experience is exciting, maturing and hopefully educational and fun. It is also a big step and almost inevitably this will bring up anxiety for them. But it is important to recognize that students going off to college are not the only ones who might be anxious.
For parents who are used to orchestrating-or at the very least, helping navigate-the lives of their children until this point, the shift to having their child away from home and making their own decisions about day to day activities and even their healthcare can be a real challenge. You might wonder how they will ever remember to eat breakfast, get to class, follow up on assignments. (Hopefully, you’ve been helping them establish more independence by taking more responsibility for managing their own stuff as they’ve moved closer to college.) When parents think about health or mental health problems that might emerge or worsen while your child is away, this is even more frightening as the stakes are so high.
How do you know how to plan for and manage this transition and how do you know when your child might need you to intervene and lend some help or support?
If your child has not yet started college you should talk with them about the importance of taking responsibility for their health and the importance of letting you know if any problems should emerge. Make sure your child knows about their health insurance coverage and how insurance works. It is very helpful to familiarize yourselves with the student support resources at the school your child will be attending-including health and counseling services. If your child has had health or mental health problems in the past and might require ongoing management and treatment, it is really important to establish a transition plan in consultation with your child’s current healthcare providers and with the relevant offices and clinicians where they will be in school (health, counseling and if relevant disabilities services and residence life).
Once your child is attending college, how will you know if they are having difficulties?
Here are some things to consider:
- Keep in touch: In this age of texting, Facebook and Instagram, sometimes it can feel like we are constantly connected to everyone we know. But, it is really helpful to actually speak to your child from time to time. You can often discern things from a conversation (tone of voice, emotional feel and the like) that don’t always come through in a text message or email
- If you are concerned, ask: Sometimes parents are afraid to intrude on their child’s privacy. This is certainly a commendable and sensible approach in general. But, if something is concerning you, mention it using specific details and examples. “You sounded really tired yesterday. Are you getting enough sleep?” Most young people are reassured by their parent taking a concerned interest in their well-being (as long as you don’t overdo it).
- Trust your gut: You know your child better than anyone else. If you feel something is not right, take this seriously and reach out to them.
- Look/listen for change: Again, you know your child best. An emotional health issue is best noticed through changes in functioning. Poor sleep or appetite, a change in self-care (not showering, dressing in markedly different ways), changes in speech (faster, slower, change in quality) or behavior may suggest a problem emerging. If you are noticing things like these, you should ask your child about it.
- Use campus support services: If after speaking to your child you are still feeling uneasy, you can speak to professionals on campus. Remember that while colleges cannot necessarily share information with you about your child (they can in a medical emergency) they can always listen to a concerned family member and should work with you to find a way to check in with your child and get back to you with some information. You can call the Dean of Students of VP of Student Affairs office (schools use these terms interchangeably) or the campus counseling service if you are concerned. If there is a problem they should help work with you and your child to establish a plan.
- Report emergencies right away: If your child is talking about violence or self-harm or sounds markedly different from usual (disorganized or incoherent speech), it is important to let the counseling service, campus security or campus student at risk team know right away.
- How much is too much?: If you find yourself constantly worried about your child and have had several discussions with them and with campus professionals and they are reassuring you that everything is ok, maybe you are having some trouble separating. Speak to a trusted friend or mental health professional to help you sort out whether your child is actually having a problem or whether you are struggling with the separation. It can be really helpful to get a “second opinion” sometimes.
You can read more about how to talk with your child about mental health in college in the new NAMI/JED Guide “Starting the Conversation”.