Talking to Your Student About Mental Health

The college experience is one filled with mixed emotions for both students and parents. Teenagers leave the comforts of home to navigate new terrain, schedules, and relationships, no longer under their parents’ supervision. Because late adolescence is still a key period of identity development, students often question family values as they are exposed to different ways of thinking and behaving. The heightened academic pressures and expanded opportunity for peer interaction may overwhelm some, thus leading to varying degrees of anxiety and/or depression. Further, mental health problems often negatively affect academic achievement. In light of this information, parents who face these issues with their children head-on and early in the college experience may find these conversations fruitful in supporting a healthier transition.

A survey conducted for the Transition Year Project by The Jed Foundation found that parents generally do not discuss mental health concerns when talking about other health issues with their child. In particular, they are unlikely to raise the issue of suicide. True; no parents wants to consider the possibility that his or her child could be at risk of suicide, and not many students are anxious to bring up the topic with Mom or Dad. The evidence suggests that most parents expect their children to communicate with them first if they are having problems. Recent findings also suggest that mothers are more comfortable than are fathers in discussing health and mental health-related topics. Mothers seem to feel more confident about when it is necessary to seek professional help. Perhaps not surprisingly, parents converse more openly with daughters than with sons.

Survey results further demonstrate that while parents know more about some mental health issues (e.g., depression) than others, they still could use more information about the warning signs. A third to a half of parents carry stigma or misunderstanding about mental health problems. Few parents, it seems, expect their child to encounter problems with mental health, so when their child is considering colleges, they rarely factor in the availability or quality of college counseling services.

As more students need mental health services, here are a few ways parents can promote mental health wellness: 1) encourage conversation about emotional problems in preparation for college (include the possibility of thoughts of self-harm), 2) reduce stigma through gaining an understanding of the factors that affect mental health, such as genetic/biologic and environmental stress, 3) gather information about early detection and treatment methods, and 4) pay attention to mental health resources on the college campus. With a supportive network on all sides, students may thrive and overcome obstacles along the journey into young adulthood equipped and better informed.

The Engle Center for Counseling and Health Services has as its mission to “provide high quality physical and mental health care to the Messiah University community. This care is based on the latest medical and psychological knowledge and is rooted in values of respect and concern for each person. In addition to treating physical and mental illness, the Engle Center supports the mission of Messiah University by providing learning opportunities that enable students to develop lifelong habits of healthy living.”

As part of that mission, we extend a warm invitation to all parents who have concerns about their child to contact us. We can be reached at 717.796.5357 between 8 and 5. Our staff has a firm understanding of the emotional development process of college students, and loves to work with them in achieving success as students of Messiah University. If we can be of help to you, the parents of our students, don’t hesitate to let us know!

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