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The Emotional Challenges of Going Off to College

August 7, 2018

Leaving home to go to college is one of the biggest transitions in a young person’s life – and comes with pressure, stress and risks. A recent survey by WebMD and The Jed Foundation shed light on some of the specific mental health challenges that affect teens who are starting college. Not only do today’s teens experience significantly higher stress levels around post-secondary education than their parents did - according to the study, teens’ mental health issues have escalated just in the past five years.

Anxiety and stress are dominant factors impacting teens’ mental health. Other issues include depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, suicidal behavior and misuse of technology. Doctors who participated in the survey note that therapy for teens is important - and issues are not going to disappear once they’re out of the house. It’s more likely that symptoms will persist or increase in a college setting.

What can parents do to reduce the emotional strain? On a practical note, teens will benefit from taking on essential daily tasks well before they leave the nest. Giving teens the independence to buy groceries, prepare their own meals or do their own laundry can build self-reliance and the ability to manage their time. Put the responsibility on teens to deal with their own prescription medications and medical or therapy appointments.

The most important thing parents can do is have honest conversations with teens about their mental health. In many cases, teens are experiencing anxiety, depression or another condition that their parents don’t even know about. It’s common for teens to hide their feelings and to shy away from vulnerable conversations. Approaching issues with humility, flexibility and humor can shed light on how teens are feeling. Ask teens open-ended questions that lead to discussion, as opposed to one-word answers. Teens experiencing mental health issues may also have physical symptoms. Fatigue, headaches, digestive trouble, nightmares or shakiness can indicate depression or anxiety.

Parents can set up their teens for support by looking into the mental health services provided by colleges and universities. With your teen, take a thorough look at the types of counseling services that are offered on a school’s website or by calling their student health center. If services are available, parents can help teens get ahead of complications by understanding the cost of mental health care, whether there is a limit to the number of visits during a semester or year, and what students need to do to get an appointment.

Amended December 15, 2020