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Learning Curve Ahead

Helping Your College-Bound Teen Maintain Good Mental Health

By Diana Weaver | Contributor

Sending your teen off to college is an exciting and nerve-wracking time for parents. We equip our young people with new laptops, supplies for a comfortable dorm room, snacks to help them survive erratic hours and much more.

Yet, one aspect we often overlook in preparing for college is teaching our kids how to maintain good mental health. According to a national survey, the emotional health of incoming freshman is at an all-time low, and students report feeling increasingly overwhelmed before they enter college.

I remember well when I was a college sophomore and had recently gone through a traumatic breakup with my longtime boyfriend. That’s when I experienced my first bout of true depression. No one had ever discussed this with me, and I was too ashamed to reach out for help.  Fortunately, good friends finally led me to the counseling center.

As a single mom of three sons, I have experienced this with each of my boys as they navigated their college years.  For different reasons, each one of them hit a bump in the road during their college tenure, and having the benefit of my own experience, I was able to direct them to the help they needed to get over that hump.

While everybody has the blues, feels anxious or gets stressed sometimes, it is important to realize that when it continues for a long time or interferes with daily activities, it may be more serious. Depression is very different from the occasional blues and can be debilitating and lead to suicidal thinking. Seven percent of college students say they have seriously considered suicide in the past year, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death among college-age young people.

Depression can run in families, and it most commonly starts between the ages of 15 and 24. Depression has physical and emotional symptoms that cannot be wished away. People with depression can’t just “pull themselves together.” The good news is that depression can be treated and people can recover.

Here are some tips for college-bound teens to help them take better care of their mental health

Develop a support network. Joining campus and extracurricular activities such as playing in a college band, joining an intramural sports team, or writing for the school newspaper are great ways to meet new friends.  Developing positive connections with others is an important factor in good mental health.

Balance your time. If you have concerns over your study habits, ability to take tests, or managing your coursework, talk with teachers, counselors, family or friends for advice and support.  Most colleges and universities have resources to help students stay on top of coursework and help improve study habits.  There is also often free tutoring available for those who need additional help.

Stay active. Regular physical activity improves your mood, helps relieve depression and increases feelings of well-being.  Make use of the fitness facility on campus or enroll in classes that provide you with physical activity.

Watch what you eat. The busy life of a college student can lead to erratic eating habits, and this can affect mood.  Be sure to eat regular, well balanced meals and stay away from sugary carbonated beverages, energy drinks and processed snacks that can affect blood sugar and mood.

Get your ZZZs. Fatigue and sleep deprivation can lead to depression.  Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine which can disrupt your sleep patterns.  Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule and avoid pulling an all-nighter to study.

Get help if you need it. Visit the health or counseling center and discuss concerns you may have with a health professional.  Most college campuses have mental health counseling available for students. If treatment is advised, follow instructions.  Watch out for side effects and attend follow-up appointments to assess improvement.  If you don’t feel better in four to six weeks, notify the health professional.

Take your medication. If your college-bound student takes medication to treat a mental health condition, make sure to discuss the importance of taking medication regularly and following up with his mental health professional on a regular basis. Managing any medical condition is an important part of a young person’s development toward independence, and learning how to monitor one’s mood is key to achieving good mental health.

Tips for Parents

E-mail or text your student. Allow your student to be on his/her own. As students are adjusting, a call may seem intrusive. Find a balance with your child and see what will work for both of you. You might want to have a conversation before your student leaves to create shared expectations.

Talk openly about alcohol, drugs, sex and other influences. Parents should have open conversations about these issues and talk about new responsibilities as an adult. You want to keep the lines of communication open. This will open the door for your student to come to you if needed.

Discuss finances in advance. Talk about budgeting and how to spend money appropriately. Keep in mind, credit card companies advertise to students with tantalizing offers. Make sure that your student is aware of all the charges that come with having a credit card.

Don’t quiz your child about academic performance. Instead, ask your student what she is learning. Allow students to grow academically in their own time; this will help them find a major that best suits them. Class performance is known to drop in the first semester in college. Understand that this is normal. Don’t make a huge deal about grades unless they’re being completely blown off.

Encourage your child to seek outside resources. Remind your child that it’s not a sign of weakness to seek out campus counseling services or community resources. This also applies to classroom struggles. Students can seek help through a professor or an outside tutor.

Enjoy having an empty nest. If you feel a sense of loss, don’t dwell on it. This is a struggle not only for the student, but for the parents as well. Make sure that you are practicing self-care. This might be an opportunity to revisit old hobbies or discover new ones.

Headed to college? Don’t forget to pack these tips. Websites for college students:


ULifeline is an anonymous, confidential, online resource center, where you’ll find information on mental health resources at your college along with a self-test for mental health.


The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13 to 24.


Active Minds is changing the culture on campuses and in the community by providing information, leadership opportunities and advocacy training for the next generation.


The Jed Foundation and mtvU created Half of Us to initiate a public dialogue to raise awareness about the prevalence of mental health issues and connect students to the appropriate resources to get help. View videos featuring young people and celebrities talking about their struggles and how they overcame them.

Need to talk?

Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

A 24-hour crisis hotline that will help you connect with mental health resources in your area.

Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386

A 24-hour toll-free, confidential crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.

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