The laptop cable lock, noise-canceling headphones and shower caddy are packed. Your child is preparing for college, whether as a freshman or a senior, and emotions run high.
Excitement and anxiety mix with fear, uncertainty and relief. And then there are your child’s feelings.
Major transitions like these, whether school is down the street or a state away, carry built-in stressors that without adequate support can feel like trauma.
Fully 75% of mental health conditions show signs by age 24. One in four college students has been treated for or diagnosed with a mental health condition. One in five students has considered suicide.
At the same time, this generation is more in touch with their emotional needs than ever before. Let’s foster that growth.
Mental health is primary health. It dictates how we engage socially, how we achieve success, and how much energy we have to handle it all.
Talking about mental health must become the newest college tradition.
1. Start the conversation now.
Talk about mental wellness in your family year-round. Share when you have sought help or praise others who have reached out. Talk about how you handle tough situations, and how resilience is such a key skill in mitigating stress. Strong coping resources are crucial to success, and your child is learning from you.
Asking for help is a sign of strength.
2. Listen, don’t judge.
When our child is anxious, our immediate response is to fix the problem. That’s natural, but listening is what is most needed. And when you do listen, respond to feelings, not the situation.
Listening and being empathetic is therapeutic.
We are afraid of being helicopter parents, and we want to give our young adult space, but we need to be present and supportive now more than ever. Listen to Toni Morrison’s question and let your face speak for your heart: Do your eyes light up when you see your child? They need to feel your love instead of hearing advice.
Acknowledge transitions are hard. Ask them how best you can help — and then listen.
How does your child best cope with stress? Ask.
How does it feel? Ask.
Don’t problem-solve. Share. Tell them and show them how you feel when you are overwhelmed and who you turn to for help. Our children watch our behavior more than they listen.
3. Enlist the community’s help.
College administrators in Illinois should be thinking a lot about student mental health. They have less than a year to implement the Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act that aims to address the woeful capacity on public university campuses through a variety of programs. NAMI Chicago supported this effort because even though mental health conditions are common in this age group, 67% of campus counseling center directors say their campus services are inadequate.
Learn the system. Research your school’s mental health resources ahead of time. Bookmark the web site. Locate their offices on a campus map. Get the crisis hotline into your kid’s phone.
Students who experience mental health issues can get better on and off campus. Encourage your kids to engage. We know that kids who get active in student groups early do better. Freshman who live in dorms make friends more quickly. Professors and academic counselors can help deal with non-academic issues too.
This generation is more open to mental health care and less stigmatized by mental illness than any in history.
With this generation, we finally may reach the tipping point where society recognizes that mental health care is health care.
This is a generation asking for help. Let’s give it to them.
Alexa James, a licensed clinical social worker, is the executive director of NAMI Chicago.