After a long, hot summer, we are finally staring autumn in the face—which means that a new academic year is starting. A lot of families I know have teens who are going away to college for the first time. It’s really wonderful to watch how eager the students are to start this new stage and how proud their parents are of their accomplishments. In a lot of cases, I know that the upcoming year will predominantly hold excitement, growth, and achievement for these newly minted college men and women. But unfortunately, I also know from personal experience that some teens will face unanticipated—and even dangerous—obstacles in the coming weeks as they try to adjust to their new environments.
If you’ve read my book, you know that I devote an entire chapter to my own college years. And for the most part, that chapter is not a happy one. As a college student, I suffered from debilitating perfectionism, anxiety, and depression, even necessitating a semester-long leave of absence from school as well as a transfer. As I describe in detail, I was able to keep up my grades, but my social life suffered. I relied heavily on the emotional support of my parents, driving the forty-five minutes from school to their home on a near-nightly basis. When my schedule forced me to stay in my dorm, I smoked and drank—not for fun, but because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through the nights without something to take the edge off. And unfortunately, I’m not the only one.
While researching the topic of anxiety in college students recently, I was shocked to discover the following:
- Over 65 percent of college students have experienced periods of homesickness.
- Forty-four percent of American college students say that they’re feeling symptoms of depression.
- More than half of all college students suffer from at least one mental health problem during their freshman years.
- As many as 11 percent of college freshmen have actually had suicidal thoughts.
- Eighty-five percent of students with depression or suicidal thoughts do not get treatment.
In my opinion, it is vitally important that all parents of college students know that while some anxiety is normal during the college transition, it can quickly escalate to unhealthy levels. We as parents need to know what to look for and how to help.
First, if your child has suffered from significant separation anxiety or has seen a psychiatrist in the recent past, it might be a good idea to encourage him to attend a college or university that’s located within an hour or so of your home. That way, if he does need to come home for support during the weekends—or even every night during the week—he can. Transferring to a more distant school later on is always an option.
No matter where your child decides to enroll—whether it’s far or near—as much as you can, watch for warning signs, including academic problems, mood swings, withdrawal, feelings of hopelessness, disregard for personal appearance, increased substance use, increased risk-taking, and/or an obsession with death. Also, take into account that your teen may be very excited to start college initially but become anxious as the semester progresses. Check in often, and if you suspect that your child may be suffering from depression or anxiety, talk with her openly about it and let her know that she is not alone!
When I was struggling in college, I thought that I was the only one having trouble and that I was abnormal. I’ve since discovered that, like me, many students with homesickness, anxiety, or depression suffer in silence because they are afraid people will think they are “crazy” or weak if they speak up.
Remember, as a parent, you’re in a position to explain to your child that many, many people are dealing with depression and anxiety. Then remind him that he does not have to live with these troubling and debilitating feelings—counseling and medication can help him take control of his life again. Be very involved each step of the way if your child does decide to seek help, whether it’s through his college or an outside doctor. And above all, please remember that difficulties adapting do not mean that your child is weak or that you have somehow failed as a parent!