The transition from high school to college is an important rite of passage in any person’s life—with it comes a whole new set of opportunities and challenges as your student adjusts to a more independent lifestyle. As a parent, you will also be going through a period of change now that your student no longer lives at home. This transitional moment is ultimately a shared experience for you and your student as you both open a new chapter of your respective lives.
As exciting as this all may be, big changes like this are often accompanied by stress. During the summer leading up to this transition, families may encounter mixed emotions that can become even more intense once the school year begins.
Students especially may find themselves experiencing a rollercoaster of feelings as they adjust to their new environment. According to the Mayo Clinic, 73% of students experience some sort of mental health crisis during college; only 25% of students with a mental health problem seek help. To better understand the mental health challenges they may face in their first year of college, Strategies For College spoke with Dr. Beth Hoke, a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University who received her PhD from Boston University. Dr. Hoke informed us of a few approaches parents may choose to take when it comes to helping their student with their mental health. We’ve also provided some additional resources at the end of this article for further information.
Develop a plan before your student goes off to college. Help them do research so they know how to access mental health resources at school—in moments of distress, the prospect of finding help might be extra overwhelming, so it’s a good idea to have this information in advance. Find out what mental health resources their school offers, and how exactly to access them. There may be a way to register for services ahead of time so your student is already in the system if they need help.
Remember that a college’s mental health centers do not generally offer long-term care to students. School therapists can be a great resource in times of need, but students are often limited to a certain number of sessions per year. If your student thinks they would benefit from ongoing psychiatric or therapeutic care, you may want to help them find a therapist located nearby. The school’s mental health center should be able to connect your student with local resources; you can also ask your student’s primary doctor for references within your insurance network. There are many kinds of psychotherapy that may benefit your student—for more information, visit the American Psychological Association’s page about different approaches to psychotherapy.
If your student already receives psychiatric treatment from a mental health professional at home, talk to them about the best way to transfer care while your student is away at school. Medical licensing laws may not allow for your student to access care remotely via telehealth conferences or even be prescribed medication across state lines, so make sure that the current care they receive is not interrupted once your student moves into their dorm. Look over your insurance policies and locate nearby pharmacies. See if you can coordinate communication between your student’s current medical providers and the school providers to ensure an easy transference of care.
Once your child turns eighteen, they are legally responsible for their own healthcare. Strategies For College strongly recommends that parents establish power of attorney for their students and sign a healthcare proxy so that in the case of a medical emergency, parents will be able to access information about their student’s care. It should be noted that this legal stipulation is not intended to violate your students’ privacy and would only be invoked in the case of a serious emergency.
Encourage honest communication.
In keeping with the spirit of planning ahead, it’s important to communicate to your student early that mental health is a priority, establishing ways to discuss these topics with them. While it is becoming more common to talk openly about mental health, Dr. Hoke told us that she has observed that many people still struggle with self-stigma, or a sense of shame they place on themselves. This can lead to students feeling afraid to acknowledge even to themselves when they are struggling, which further prevents them from asking for help. Beginning the conversation about mental health at home will build the necessary framework for your student to assess their own emotions and seek help if they feel they need it.
Self-advocacy is a vital skill, especially when your student is on their own at college. You may not always be able to provide the help your student needs, so they need to feel empowered to seek out other more immediate forms of support. However, this does not mean you should give up on providing solace in more remote ways. Agree with your student ahead of time to a check-in schedule at regular intervals, during which you can have an honest conversation with your student about how they’re feeling, if and what they’re struggling with, and what solutions they might be able to arrive at for themselves. The spirit of these conversations should be: “We trust you to take care of yourself, but we also want you to trust us with any issues that you can’t handle on your own.”
Regular honest communication about one’s feelings can lead to a person being more aware of their own emotions in general, even if they are not always voicing those thoughts aloud. It’s important to check in with others, but it’s equally as important to check in with oneself. This skill is particularly useful when it comes to determining whether any negative feelings are a response to a specific event or environmental factor—a bad grade on an exam, a fight with a roommate, etc.—or the symptoms of an ongoing mental condition. If your student is unable to trace feelings of sadness, apathy, and/or anxiety to a particular trigger, if these feelings interfere with their usual activities or continue to persist over time, they may be suffering from a condition that needs professional treatment. In this case, your student may want to consider therapy in order to talk through their feelings with a mental health expert.
Not every day is perfect.
Once college moves from the realm of dreams to an everyday lived reality, your student will likely have to reckon with their expectations for their first year. Teenagers often have very high expectations for their college experience based on media and what they’ve heard from older friends and family. Part of your conversation with your student should be to acknowledge the difficulty of the transition from high school to college and the potential for homesickness as well as general disappointment when things don’t turn out exactly as they envisioned. Gently remind your student that it is unrealistic to expect yourself to be happy every day, to get perfect grades in every class, or be best friends with everyone you meet. Trying new things is an important part of this first year, but there will inevitably be things that don’t work out. Encourage your student to think of everything—whether positive, negative, or neutral—as a learning experience. Dr. Hoke pointed out that students should remember that “they are taking themselves with them to college” and though they will certainly change and grow a lot in their first year, they can’t expect to become entirely new people just because they’re in a new phase of their life.
You’re investing a lot of finances and emotional energy into your student’s future and it can be just as difficult for the parent to adjust to this transition as it is for the student. The family dynamic can shift with distance and parents may feel left out of their student’s life while still footing the bill for those experiences. We recognize that it’s a scary idea to think of your student fending for themselves out in the world, but it is ultimately important to allow them space to create a more independent life for themselves at college. Remember that giving your student this space communicates that you have confidence in them and their abilities. Through honest conversations with you and other trusted adults about their mental health, your student should feel empowered to seek help when they feel they need it. Together you and your student can celebrate these important steps toward a healthy, fulfilling, more independent college lifestyle.
For more information on student mental health and tips for the emotional transition from high school to college, we recommend the following resources:
“Mental Health Challenges For College Students” from Massachusetts General Hospital
“Preparing for College Emotionally, Not Just Academically” from Child Mind Institute
“Planning Ahead for Your Mental Health Care as You Transition to College” from The Jed Foundation