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As the holiday season approaches, students across the country are wrapping up their papers and exams for a long holiday break. For many, it is a time to rest, recharge and catch up with friends and family. It can also be an important opportunity for the adults in students’ lives to check in about their mental health and wellness.
In college, our kids’ lives are full of new experiences; while exciting for many, navigating academic pressures and a growing independence can also bring about mental health challenges including anxiety or mood disorders that might need extra attention.
According to a recent health data brief from America’s Health Rankings®, young adults (18-25 years of age) faced the greatest behavioral and mental health concerns across all adult age groups, and were most likely to report frequent mental distress, depression, unmet mental health needs, suicidal thoughts, and substance use disorder.
Many assume that they would recognize when their child is facing things like depression or anxiety, but these challenges can often escape parents’ immediate notice. A survey fielding college students and parents of college students revealed large disparities in parent perceptions of student mental health struggles. Parents were twice as likely to report that their child did not experience a behavioral or mental health concern in the last year, compared to what students reported about their own experiences. This disconnect is more than just a generation gap -- when it comes to depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, or suicidal thoughts, not knowing what students are going through can have serious implications.
Opening the door to honest conversations is an important first step, as is staying tuned in to behavior. Some common warning signs of developing mental illness include persistent sadness, withdrawal from social interactions, outbursts of extreme irritability, drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality, changes in eating habits, difficulty sleeping, frequent headaches or stomach aches, difficulty concentrating, displaying changes in academic performance, or avoiding or missing school.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when addressing mental health with your child:
Get the conversation going by asking questions.
Mental health is a sensitive subject that your child might not want to discuss. As a parent, help make your child feel comfortable by approaching the topic with empathy and curiosity. Consider asking questions that encourage them to share experiences rather than respond with “yes” or “no” answers:
- “How are you handling the balance between school and social life?”
- “Can you tell me about some friends you’ve met and what you like to do together?”
- “I’ve noticed you’re not feeling yourself lately, can you share what’s on your mind?”
Validate your child’s feelings
Validate your child’s feelings and let them know it's okay to feel upset, anxious, scared, or angry. Avoid arguing about how they should feel and be open to discussing what makes them feel that way. Even though they might not respond, know that they’re listening. If your child hesitates to discuss their emotional or behavioral shifts with you, continue providing support and encourage them to speak with someone they trust who might better understand their circumstances, like a different adult, school counselor, or doctor.
Come up with a plan to take action.
After carefully listening and assessing the situation, it's okay to have only some of the answers. To prepare for your child’s return to school, make sure they know what resources are available to them, should they need help -- whether that’s knowing how to access support available at school or on campus, or knowing the care options that exist through their insurance.
For example, they may have digital self-help solutions or access to virtual visits through their parent’s plan or on a student health plan. If you have any questions about resources, please speak with your doctor, insurance company or contact the school to better understand your coverage.
While conversations about mental health may not be easy, they are essential. It is more likely that our children will turn to us for support if we approach them with empathy and openness.