So, your child is off to college! What’s on the packing list? An electric fan and desk lamp, likely. A shower caddy and shoes, necessary. Twin XL sheets and comforter, to be sure. An umbrella for rainy days. A winter coat, depending on where the campus is. A mini fridge and some snacks to share with roommates. Don’t forget a laundry bag!
We’re sure you’ve got your kid’s dorm room, closet, and school bag covered. But what about making sure they’re prepared mentally and emotionally?
College is an exciting time of learning, trying new things, meeting new people, and doing what you love. But mental health problems including depression and anxiety can get in the way – and even be exacerbated by the stresses of transitioning into college life. Research organization Healthy Minds Network’s annual survey on college students’ mental health in 2020 found that 39% of students surveyed experienced depression and 34% experienced anxiety. More than a fifth of students said they often felt left out or that they lacked companionship. Over a quarter of students said they experienced 6 or more days where emotional and mental difficulties had hurt their academic performance in the last month.
There are ways to help alleviate some of these pressures and stressors, including before your child even steps on campus. Before your child heads off to college – or back after a summer of rest – here is a mental health checklist with some things you can “pack” as extra help for your off-to-college kid.
1.) A series of check-in conversations about college
The thing about starting college is that many different things are changing and happening all at once — and fast. You’ll want to make sure you’re talking through some of these changes with your child in the months and weeks leading up to their move-in date, rather than just at the last minute.
It may be helpful to ask them how they’re feeling about the upcoming transition. What are they excited about? What, if anything, are they worried about or dreading? Do they feel ready for the move? If not, what sorts of things could help?
By having these sorts of conversations early and often, you can really help guide your child through making the best possible preparations on the most possible fronts.
2.) A proper self-care routine
Self-care is important, including and especially for young people adjusting to major life changes — like starting at a new college.
Discuss important self-care behaviors, ranging from the big to the small. Good self-care practices can also take the form of a morning or nighttime routine. Perhaps your child finds it helpful to keep a journal, or to listen to music after a long day. Maybe they meditate, take a walk or ensure they’re talking to a friend over call or dinner every so often. No matter what, they should remember to keep healthy habits including exercise and prioritizing good sleep.
3.) Teach them to advocate for themselves
One of the most transformative aspects of going off to college is the newfound sense of independence. It’s possible your children have mostly been living at home, and have had parents and guardians to rely on to make major decisions, to problem solve, to point them in the right direction, maybe even to speak on behalf of them. As a parent, you may have felt – and acted on – the urge to solve your child’s issues.
In college, a lot of that crutch will disappear, and your child will suddenly be on their own to fend for themselves. And they may feel, perhaps for the first time, that they’re now a little fish in a big pond.
That’s all okay. In fact, that’s a good thing for their overall development as human beings.
But each child coming into university needs at least basic self-advocacy skills – ones that will strengthen over their college years. They should know how to identify and be aware of the challenges they may face, what they need to cope with the problem, and how to best speak up and get solutions — including more support if needed.
For students with ADHD, learning differences, and mental health issues, as well as autistic students, it’s all the more crucial for them to speak up about their needs and to participate in important decisions being made.
4.) A sit-down conversation about mental health
No matter where you are with your child in your ongoing conversation about mental health, it’s a good idea to talk explicitly about mental health ahead of their big transition.
Just plain growing up comes with so many mental and emotional challenges; college life can compound those issues with new homesickness, college stress, and the overall turbulence of change.
Your teenager might even feel impostor syndrome or might feel they don’t belong. They may find it difficult to make friends or may struggle with classes. It can all be very overwhelming.
At the end of the conversation, make sure to remind them that you are open to listening about any mental health struggles during college and that you’ll support them through whatever arises.
5.) Make a plan
College can be stressful; there’s keeping up classes, joining extracurriculars, and meeting new friends— all on top of homesickness, and adjusting to an entirely new environment and lifestyle.
Once college life really gets rolling, especially for freshmen, it can be difficult to find a moment to pause and take stock of it all.
That’s why it’s helpful to do some pre-college thinking aloud or even planning out.
That can include small-picture, tangible things, like What can I do when I feel homesick? or What are some extracurricular activities I really want to try out? or How can I meet other students who share my interests, or How do I keep a budget?
That can also include big-picture, more abstract things: What are some things you hope to get out of my four years? or What kind of person do I want to be in college?
And of course, some things are unpredictable! One can’t, and shouldn’t, plan for every single thing. But setting in motion a basic set of plans or goals can help manage the stress.
After these conversations, check-ins, and planning processes, you may feel your child needs more resources and support. The summer might be a great time to get your child access to therapy.
If your child has already been attending therapy or has ongoing mental health issues, it may be a good idea to connect with the mental health services on campus. You may want to contact the counseling and mental health services to check on what services are provided, the procedures for enrolling, as well as how early the student can begin.