What Parents Need to Know about Mental Illness on College Campuses

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This time of year, it’s hard to drive around Columbus and not spot a graduation sign posted in a friend or neighbor’s yard. While there is so much to celebrate, the prospect of going away to college can be daunting for both students and their parents. While your child may be worried about housing assignments and class schedules, parents have an entirely different set of concerns associated with sending a child to college. One such worry is mental illness.

The statistics for collegiate depression and suicide have soared in recent years. In fact, according to an article in USA Today, more than 1,000 college students commit suicide each year. Let’s take a closer look at the implications of this epidemic and the important ways that parents, colleges and medical professionals can help.

Contributing Factors

While it’s tough to pinpoint exactly why some students struggle with depression and mental illness, it’s easy to see how the typical college environment can exacerbate the problem. In addition to the anxiety that comes with big life changes like living away from home, college students are notorious for not taking care of themselves.

Along with sleep deprivation, lack of exercise and poor eating, substance abuse is a contributing factor that cannot be ignored. Whether it’s used as a coping mechanism for academic stress or simply viewed as a way to have fun, alcohol and drug abuse is pervasive. It negatively impacts a student’s mental well-being and his or her ability to make healthy choices.

What to Look For

It’s important to catch depression as early as possible. To do so, it’s necessary to openly communicate with your child and to foster a relationship built on trust. It’s also naïve to assume that your child won’t ever experiment with risky behavior throughout college—especially when depression is a factor. To keep the lines of communication open, talk with your child and listen to what he or she has to say. In the meantime, be on the lookout for common symptoms of depression, such as:

  • Unexplained academic problems
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or fun activities
  • Anger, frustration, irritability
  • Extreme sadness, despair
  • Fixation on death or talk of suicide

Getting Help

Unfortunately, many students are embarrassed about the way they feel, and they choose not to seek help as a result. If you think your child may be depressed, one of the worst things you can do is to tell him to “just get over it.” Instead, validate your child’s feelings and encourage him to seek professional help.

Most colleges and universities now offer a host of support services for students struggling with mental illness. For instance, The Ohio State University’s Office of Student Life Counseling and Consultation Services provides psychiatric evaluations, counseling services, campus resources, group therapy, workshops and support for families.

If your child’s school does not offer a counseling center, contact a therapist in the area. Students may also reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK, which, in addition to being a crisis hotline, offers advice and a listening ear.

David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206 or by phone at 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.