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Mental Health and Your Student
It is the best of times. It is the worst of times.
Attending college can be a gateway to future success and happiness – but it can also be the cause of great anxiety and mental stress. While students are excited about the prospect of living on their own, meeting new friends, and training for their future careers, many worry about grades, financing their education, and living up to the expectations of their parents and family. As parents, memories of the stresses we experienced during that time have often faded, leaving a nostalgia that can make it difficult to empathize with the difficulty of navigating this transition. Because of the sacrifices we have made to get them there, we often don’t want to believe when things may be falling apart.
The two most common forms of mental illness, depression and anxiety, affect between 13 and 16% of college students. It is normal for college students to occasionally feel sad or anxious. According to the 2014 National College Health Assessment, over 85% of students had felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, and almost 50% had felt totally hopeless at some point in the past 12 months. When these feelings don’t pass within a few days and they begin to affect activities and relationships, there may be something more serious developing. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety might be difficult if your child isn't living at home.
Signs and symptoms that a student might be experiencing depression during college include(from mayoclinic.org):
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as hobbies or sports
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Changes in appetite — often reduced appetite and weight loss, but increased cravings for food and weight gain in some people
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures, or blaming yourself for things that aren't your responsibility
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or suicide
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
- Academic problems not consistent with her or her previous performance.
Anxiety symptoms may be different based on the specific condition or disorder, but common symptoms include (from anxiety.org):
- Excessive, irrational, or uncontrollable feelings of worry and dread
- Sensations of panic and uneasiness for no apparent reason
- Obsessive thoughts
- Ritualistic behavior
- Trouble sleeping
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle tension
- Inability to remain calm
- Trouble concentrating
- Rapid breathing, or hyperventilation
- Dry mouth
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Trembling or shaking
It is often frightening and confusing for parents who realize that their child may have a problem. The student may feel embarrassed about seeking help, although thankfully this stigma is declining. A recent Harris Poll showed 60% of college students view seeking professional mental health services as a sign of strength.
If you suspect that your child may be dealing with anxiety and depression, talk to him or her about what is going on and listen. Recognize that your child may not be able to express exactly how they feel. Initially many students are hesitant to disclose their feelings; many worry about disappointing their parents. As difficult as it may be, encourage them to see a counsellor. Depression and anxiety may not get better on their own, and can worsen without treatment, leading to other mental and physical health symptoms. They can also increase to likelihood of detrimental behaviors such as substance abuse, binge drinking, and unsafe sex. They can also increase the risk of suicide, one of the leading cause of deaths on college campuses.
While your child is receiving treatment, you can take steps to help them cope. Encourage them to avoid doing too many things at once. This can help prevent becoming overwhelmed and falling into unhealthy thought patterns. Remind them to take good care of their physical health with daily exercise, eating well, and resting. Avoid drugs and alcohol which can worsen symptoms and trigger crisis moments. Also, ask them to spend time with friends and family. Although this can be difficult, this connection helps them to stay grounded and can help them realize that there are many people who care for them.
Auburn University takes the mental health of its students very seriously, having wonderful support systems in place. Recently, faculty, staff and students participated in Question, Persuade, and Refer (QPR) training for suicide prevention. QPR teaches how to recognize someone at risk of suicide and how to direct them on how to get help. This is a wonderful program that helps overcome the inertia of feeling uncomfortable or not knowing what to do when a friend is in trouble.
Know that your family is not alone in dealing with depression and anxiety, and that there are many resources you can access in the Auburn family. Student Counselling Services has expertise in dealing with college students and mental health. They have screening and counselling available for students 5 days a week. The Office of Parent and Family Programs has put out a wonderful video with their Navigate Webinar Series
Recognizing and reacting to signs of depression and anxiety early can help your student recover and have the happy and healthy college experience everyone envisions.
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