Five Ways to Start a Mental Health Conversation with your College Kids Over the Holidays
Hayley B. Sherwood, Ph.D.
Articles in the news media and online are aplenty during the holiday season, full of advice for coping with stress, difficult relationships, grief, and a host of other challenges. For parents with college students, the next several weeks is often one of the few times of the year that their children are home for an extended period of time. According to statistics on ActiveMinds.org, 39% of college students experience a significant mental health issue, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among this population.
As college students wrap up exams and return home, the long holiday break can be a good time to open up a discussion about mental health. Here are several ways to start a conversation:
1. Ask questions (without badgering!). Find time to inquire about self-care habits. How much sleep are they getting and how well are they sleeping? How is their diet? Have they gained or lost a significant amount of weight? Are they improving or at least maintaining their grades? What are they doing to relax? Are they managing their time well? Are they feeling connected to roommates and classmates? Is exercise part of their routine? Are they participating in any clubs or other extra-curricular activities?
2. Be honest. As your children reach young adulthood, share family mental health histories with them. Just as we discuss our family’s physical issues, like cancer or diabetes, many older teens need to hear about family addiction, depression, anxiety, psychosis, and other issues for which they might be at risk. These conversations can be uncomfortable. However, young adults in their late teens and early twenties are most vulnerable to serious mental illness, especially when those related to them have been diagnosed. For example, informing your children that addiction runs in the family might just alert them that excessive use of things like alcohol, drugs, video games, porn, or spending could lead to more self- destructive choices or long-term consequences down the road. Talk with your children about more adaptive ways of coping with stress.
3. Be a resource. Let your child know you support them in finding mental health help in college and in the college community. Most colleges have counseling and/or learning centers that offer individual and group services for a range of issues. Offer to assist in identifying mental health resources online, as well as on- and off-campus. If your child is struggling academically or has a history of receiving school-based support prior to college, consulting with staff in their college Office of Disability Services could lead to accommodations in the classroom. As legal adults, college-aged children must take the lead in seeking out these services, but parents can also encourage their child, along with track down paperwork or reach out for guidance from therapists or other professionals who may have supported their child in high school.
4. Equip. Think about offering your college students free or inexpensive apps that help ease stress and/or cope with a variety of mental health conditions, including Happify, Insight Timer, Calm, Breathe2Relax, Sanvello and What’s Up, as well as MindShift (anxiety), Recovery Record (eating disorders), Panic Relief (panic disorder), Twenty-Four Hours A Day (addiction) and eMoods (bipolar disorder).
5. Keep in touch. As your children prepare to return to college, especially if they are struggling with a mental health issue,
establish a plan for staying in regular contact. Setting aside time for a call or Facetime, not just texting,
allows parents to hear their children’s voice, which is a better way to see how they are feeling.
Taking the time to connect and engage in these vital conversations over the holidays can make a huge difference in how your young adult learns to prioritize and manage their mental health.
About the Author:
Dr. Sherwood is a Board Member of This Is My Brave, as well as the Owner and Clinical Psychologist of Oak Hill Psychological Services, PLLC, in Herndon, Virginia. She specializes in adolescent, women’s and family issues.