What Mental Health Needs Should Parents Consider When Sending a Child to College?

Leaving home places stress on teens, but parents can help by ensuring schools offer adequate mental health services on campus.

By David Levine, ContributorApril 13, 2018, at 1:53 p.m.

A SURVEY RELEASED IN January shines a startling light on a problem that many may be unaware of. The survey of more than 500 health care providers and 700 parents and guardians of high school students found that today’s teenagers are feeling more stress and anxiety, and their doctors are treating more teens with mood disorders, than in the past. But the survey found parents put little thought into the mental health issues they may face when going off to college or the services they may need once they get there.

The survey, Preparing for College: The Mental Health Gap, was conducted by WebMD/Medscape, in collaboration with JED, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting emotional health and preventing suicide among teens and young adults. A large majority of health care professionals, which included 202 pediatricians and 201 psychologists/psychiatrists, said they had seen more mental health issues among teens in the past five years:

  • 86 percent said teens have more stress and anxiety.
  • 81 percent treated more anxiety disorders.
  • 70 percent treated more mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder.

Parents echoed these findings, with 45 percent saying their child has been diagnosed or treated for a mental health issue, learning disorder or substance abuse problem, and 51 percent reporting that their child has seen a therapist. But just 17 percent of all parents said they thought about access to on-campus mental health services when considering schools for their child. Among parents of teens with diagnosed mental health issues, only 28 percent said they had thought about mental health services when shopping for schools.

The survey is “an attempt to remind people of the importance of not just looking at ratings of colleges for cost,” says Dr. Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of the Jed Foundation. “We know that the U.S. does not do great job of getting students to graduation. In fact, we lead the world. A significant part of that is cost, but we believe a lot of that is the result of psychosocial factors like stress. You need to consider the support services a college has, and consider the culture of the campus,” he says, when deciding where to send your teen for school.

Stress and an Undeveloped Brain

The problem of mental health among college students is a growing concern, says Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. “It’s on the minds of all of us who care for what we call the transitional age group, of 18 to 25 or 26,” he says.

Schlozman explains that there are several reasons for concern: “From an epidemiological perspective, this is the average age that most psychiatric symptoms declare themselves or get bad enough that people can’t ignore them anymore.” This big life transition places stressors on a not-yet-fully developed teenage brain that is “at its prime moment of being capable of deep thoughts and at same time acting impulsively on those deep thoughts. That is the strange place that 18-year-olds are in,” he says.

Leaving home and losing that protective cocoon places stress on kids, especially those who have had everything scheduled and monitored for them by helicopter parents and guardians. Going off to school is even harder on kids who already have mental health issues, of which there are now far more, Scholzman says. “Kids who would not have gone to college in past now go, because we have gotten better at acknowledging these symptoms, and they get into treatment before college. But when they go to college, the treatment often disappears because there hasn’t been a lot of thought about how to transition their care.”

Scholzman adds that the longstanding promise of college, where you go to get a better job, is not a given anymore. “Kids know that, and this economic reality brings uncertainty and stress.” They also know the financial burden college places on their parents and increasingly themselves. “Everyone talks about justifying the inflationary rate of tuition, and how they will ever recoup that,” he says. “I can’t imagine kids aren’t hearing that from parents, and that further adds to the pressure.” Social media, and the pressure to compare themselves to others, also plays a role, he adds.

Take an Active Role

Colleges are struggling to meet the demand for mental health services, which has risen over the past several years, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. Parents need to consider such services and the culture of the campus in dealing with mental health. “If there is a history of mental health concerns, you need to be thoughtful how that care will continue in a college setting,” Schwartz says. Also think about how far from home the student may be comfortable traveling, whether he or she may be better suited to a large or small college, and whether the campus is in or near an urban setting, where more mental health care providers are located, as opposed to a rural campus that may not have a large hospital or medical center nearby. And ask the school directly what it offers in terms of mental health services, such as whether it has a counseling center, if services offered for free and if there local health care providers who work with the school when needed.

Scholzman recommends having an active discussion with your child before he or she goes to college. For kids already in treatment, include the child’s provider and the school, to prepare for and set up transition of care. For other kids, tell them that college is a big change, and that you want some kind of plan in place if he or she starts to feel stressed, anxious or depressed. “This happens a lot more than we think it happens,” he says, “and you can’t assume it will take care of itself.”

“We heard too many stories,” Schwartz says, “where kids were treated for anxiety or depression in high school and might have a had suicide attempt. People have this idea that college is a new lease, but there isn’t a well-thought plan for how care will be given and how a crisis, if it develops, will be managed. This is an important piece for your child’s success in college.”

David Levine, Contributor

David Levine is a freelance health reporter at U.S. News. He is a contributing writer for athenaInsight.com and Wainscot Health Media, a former health care columnist for Governing magazine and a regular contributor to many other health and wellness publications. He also writes about lifestyle and general interest topics, from history and business to beer and baseball, as a contributing writer for Westchester, Hudson Valley and 914INC magazines. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, American Heritage and dozens of other national publications, and he is the author or co-author of six books on sports. You can connect him on LinkedIn.

Journal Reference:

  1. David Levine. What Mental Health Needs Should Parents Consider When Sending a Child to CollegeU.S. News, 2018