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College Students & Mental Health: What Parents & Families Should Know

By Judy L. Prince, Clinical Psychologist, Counseling and Psychological Services

Every fall, thousands of students arrive at college and university campuses all over the country, seeking an education and eager for a new chapter of life to begin. And of course, every parent hopes that the college years will be a positive and successful experience for their son or daughter – academically, socially and personally. The college years can and should be a time of learning, new experiences and personal growth.

In addition to these very positive sentiments, it should also be stated that challenges will naturally arise during the college years. Indeed, challenges should not only be anticipated but welcomed as potentially valuable learning experiences for the young adult. But what should students do when difficulties occur that are of a very personal or emotional nature? How should parents respond when their student is experiencing concerns pertaining to their mental health? Depression, anxiety and other mental health problems are common among college students today. What can both students and parents do to ensure that these types of problems, if they occur, are minimally disruptive to academic achievement and other goals?

At this point, the reader might be thinking something like, “Well, I don’t think that my child will have those kinds of problems. She’s always been a really happy kid.” But the truth is that no one is immune and today’s young adults may even be at particular risk College and university counseling centers across the country are reporting seeing more students, with more severe mental health concerns, than ever before. In their text, College of the Overwhelmed, Kadison and Digeronimo (2004) characterize the problem as a current mental health “crisis” on college campuses, implicating a variety of factors including developmental issues, parental pressure, cultural expectations, economic and job market concerns, and a culture of fear in a post-9/11 world as all contributing to current trends. Consider the following:

  • Depression. One out of four young adults will experience a depressive episode by the age of 24 years. Almost half of college students report feeling so depressed at some point that they have had difficulty functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 2008).
  • Eating disorders. Although only a small percentage of students will be diagnosed with a full-blown eating disorder, 30 to 75 percent of college students report various symptoms of disordered eating (Hoyt and Ross, 2003). Moreover, certain sub-groups, such as athletes and students in the performing arts, may be at even greater risk.
  • Alcohol abuse. Research conducted by a federal task force of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2002) reported that 31 percent of college students were found to meet criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse, and six percent for a diagnosis of alcohol dependence, based on self-reports of their drinking.

The concerns listed above are just a sample of the types of clinical problems that some young adults will face during the college years. In addition to these clinical problems or illnesses, students can also find themselves in distress due to encounters with the common developmental challenges that will arise in the course of their daily living and college years. The following lists some of the circumstances that can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and simply over-taxing a young person’s resources for coping:

  • Being away from home for the first time
  • Adjustment to college life and increased freedom
  • Disappointments in relationships (espe- cially “break-ups” with a romantic partner)
  • New social experiences and peer pressure
  • Roommate problems
  • Academic pressures
  • Value confusion
  • Identity development
  • Financial concerns

Whether a mental illness such as depression, or developmental distress such as severe homesickness, there is potential for the college experience to be compromised. So what should students and parents do? How should a parent respond when they believe that their son or daughter is depressed, or severely anxious, or experiencing some other significant mental health concern? What should students do when they are faced with a problem that seems overwhelming and unsolvable?

Education is Key

Despite progress in recent years, there is still a great deal of misconception and stigma surrounding mental health. Some may avoid educating themselves because they don’t think it will happen in their family, or perhaps because the matter is simply too unpleasant to think about. Some may even buy into the popular myths associated with mental health concerns such as “being depressed is a sign of weakness” or “counseling is only for crazy people.” But as they say, information is power.

As a first step, parents and students are encouraged to educate themselves about mental health issues that can, and often do, affect college students. Knowing the signs and symptoms of common mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, is an excellent beginning. The reader is encouraged to make a commitment to knowing the facts from the myths. The more you know, the better off you will be if a mental health issue, or other significant personal concern, touches your life or the life of someone you love.

Tips for parents

There are a variety of support services on campus, such as Counseling and Psychological Services, that can be helpful to you and your student. Parents will want to be familiar with the available resources, both on and off campus, and encourage your student to be as well. Talk to your student about how they are doing on a regular basis and don’t be afraid to ask direct questions, especially if you are concerned, such as simply, “Are you depressed?” If you think that your student is having difficulty, encourage him or her to use the counseling center and other resources that are available. If your student resists getting help, try to avoid forcing him or her to do so. Remember, your son or daughter is at a time in life when they are appropriately working on developing greater autonomy from you, so trying to force help-seeking behavior will probably be unsuccessful. Instead, talk to your son or daughter about their thoughts and feelings about getting help. Your student may simply have misconceptions about counseling and other types of professional help. Let your student know that reaching out for help is not a sign of being crazy or weak, but rather an indicator of maturity and strength. Despite your adult child’s greater independence as a college student, and appropriate desire to make his or her own decisions, there is a very good chance that you are still their most trusted advisor. Use that power with a soft touch, and with respect for their young adult status, and you will likely be successful in getting your student to help in the event that it is needed.


American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from: stats.cfm on February 27, 2008.
Hoyt, W. and Ross, S. (2003). Clinical and Subclinical Eating Disorders in Counseling Center Clients: A Prevalence Study. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 17 (4), 39-54.
Kadison, R. and Digeronimo (2004). College of the Overwhelmed. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2002). What Parents Need to Know About College Drinking. Retrieved from: on March 2, 2008.