Supporting College Student Mental Health: What Parents Need to Know this Winter Break

Nearly three-quarters of college students have reported moderate or severe psychological distress – and the end-of-semester pressures combined with holiday stresses can create a perfect storm for students already struggling with mental health. According to campus teletherapy provider Uwill, requests for counseling services jumped by 46% in November 2022 as students juggled end-of-semester exams and assignments and prepared to head home for the holidays.  

As parents prepare to welcome their children back to the nest this holiday season, what should they watch for to determine whether their kids might be struggling? After all, some common identifiers for mental health issues like anxiety and depression can be normal behaviors for a college student home for winter break (think: oversleeping, fatigue, changes in appetite, weight changes, and outgrowing high school friends or interests). 

Licensed mental health counselor Erin Andrews, who also leads clinical services for Uwill, offers four red flags that could signal to a parent that their child may be struggling with mental health:

  1. Lack of relationships.  Listen to who they spend their time with. Who are their friends, how do they spend their time together? If there is a lack of this information, this could be a warning sign for social isolation or social withdrawal. 
  2. Lack of engagement. Listen to how they spend their spare time – what clubs have they joined, what do they do outside of their schoolwork? Lack of engagement could indicate depression or challenges with motivation. 
  3. Perfectionism. Listen for “all-or-nothing” thinking (“If I did not get an A, then I failed”), catastrophizing (“If I do not get into the top sorority, my life is over”), and “shoulds” (“I should always be liked by others”). If this thinking is present, this could signify potentially problematic issues with perfectionism, anxiety, or self-esteem. 
  4. Academic stress.  Listen for how they relate to their academics – how much does school monopolize their time and energy, how much do they base their self-worth and happiness on their academic success? If their lives are wholly defined by academics, this could indicate excessive pressure, anxiety, or stress that could lead to burnout or worsening mental health.

If you catch any of these warning signs, Andrews cautions, be direct with your child and share your concerns using ‘I language’ (example – “I am concerned about your mental health because I hear your constant worry about your academic performance.”). Help identify resources that may be available through their college counseling center, teletherapy support services, or their social and familial support network.

Colleges recognize there is a mental health crisis on campuses around the country, and many have partnered with teletherapy providers like Uwill to help remove barriers to mental health care. Students and parents can reach out directly to their campus counseling center to learn if a similar solution is available to assist their child. 

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