As More College Students Struggle With Mental Health Issues, What Can Parents Do?


College students are under more stress than ever before, making support from family crucial

This fall, North Carolina State University lost four students to suicide. Other colleges, such as Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, and the University of North Carolina, have reported student suicides on the rise. The epidemic of suicide attempts by young people is more than concerning—it’s frightening. For college-aged students, in particular, there has been a sharp increase in suicidal ideation. In fact, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students.

Adolescence (age 9 to 25) is a critical period of right brain development, only second to ages 0–3. During adolescence, the brain is pruning all of the excess synapses and cells in a process as critical to mental and emotional health as the burst of growth in the early years. During this period in which the brain is being designed to become what will later be that adult’s brain, stress is the most impactful on development.

College students are under more stress than ever before. In part, it has to do with parents’ conscious and unconscious expectations and an educational system that pushes them toward high achievement and intense competition. High school students are pressured to achieve perfect grades and perfect test scores on college entrance exams to even be considered for elite colleges. In addition, they’re forced to think about the future in an adult-like manner for which they aren’t prepared. They’re also working in adult-like internships and jobs to get a leg up in the job market even before they’ve been able to explore their many options in university. This intense focus on the future isn’t normal, or healthy, for high school and college-aged students who are developmentally focused on the present.

Unfortunately, this inability to be future-thinking also increases their chances of suicide. Suicide is an action taken by a young adult who can’t see past their current adversity or distress to a brighter or more hopeful future, which makes their pain in the moment less bearable and more desperate. As adults, because we have working prefrontal cortices, we not only can see that tomorrow can be better, but we also have perspective that helps us to navigate adversity and stress.

In addition, due to the discrepant growth between the different parts of the right brain in adolescents and young adults, they’re more vulnerable to breakdown. The amygdala, or the threat-sensing part of the brain, and the ventral striatum, the reward center, are growing at a more rapid rate than the prefrontal cortex, the emotional regulation part, which isn’t finished growing until 25 years of age. This leads to more impulsivity, more hypersensitivity to stress, greater pain from losses of any kind and to criticism or rejection, as well as poorer judgment and ability to see things with perspective. All of these factors mean adolescents, even those in college, need to be treated with more sensitivity, empathy, and understanding rather than judgment and harsh criticism.

Environmental stress is also toxic for adolescents and young adults who are overwhelmed by technology and social media that focus on perfection, parental and personal high expectations, and a comparison culture. They’re intensely aware of an unstable job market and political and economic system that makes their futures feel more uncertain, peppered with global warming, which suggests there may not be a future at all.

Adolescence is often the time when attachment disorders and the consequences of emotional insecurity that were planted in early childhood are expressed as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders. It’s a weak point in development when any prior conflicts or losses are expressed. For college students, being away from home and the stress of separation from family and having to care for themselves in a new setting can be the perfect storm for the development of mental health problems.

What Parents Can Do

So what can we, as parents, do about this crisis? It starts in the early years. Children aren’t born resilient. As parents, we help them build resilience, not through toughness, but rather through tenderness, sensitivity, empathy, and our physical and emotional presence. We need to prepare our kids for a stressful adolescence by being as present as possible in the early years to lay the foundation of emotional security they’ll need to withstand the stress, adversity, competition, and pressure they’ll face as young adults entering college.

When they’re under 3, and even throughout their childhood, we can help to regulate their distress, sadness, anger, fear, and excitement by helping them process how they’re feeling without judgment, criticism, dismissal, or rejection. We also help them become resilient by providing them with a sense of safety and a sense of perspective about what’s really important. We can model for them that we’re imperfect and struggle, too, but emphasize that we’re always focused on what’s important—family and relationships—not money, status, and high achievement.

The best time to prepare our adolescents for young adulthood is when they’re young and under our roof. This doesn’t mean that we can’t provide them with much of the same empathy, sensitivity, and emotional processing when they head to college, but we’re more limited, then, because they’re often physically far away.

A few words of advice for parents who see signs of depression or suicidal thoughts in their young adults. Look for:

  • increased moodiness,
  • increased and chronic sadness about the past or anxiety about the future
  • hopelessness or despair about the future
  • social isolation or social difficulties
  • reduced physical activity
  • sleep issues (too much or too little sleep, problems going to sleep, and problems staying asleep)
  • eating issues (binge eating, weight gain, or extreme weight loss)
  • a drop in their academic performance
  • increased alcohol or drug use
  • lack of motivation to engage or participate in activities at school
  • roommate problems (they are living away from home, which is a secure haven, and are now forced to live in a small space with someone where there may be conflict).

If you see any of these signs in clusters, and for a prolonged period of two weeks, then don’t wait to take action to help your child. Get them a therapist; in-person is great but remote can work in a world where there simply aren’t enough therapists on college campuses to meet the demand. Go see your child at school if you can as soon as possible, so you can see how they are really doing. It is always harder to judge these issues from afar. If you see things that concern you, don’t wait to get help.

The first stop should be a well-trained psychodynamic therapist, not a CBT or DBT therapist (this is only for kids who are non-verbal and have difficulty expressing their emotions verbally). If they can talk about their feelings, then find someone who is trained to help them talk about their feelings in depth rather than just focus on symptom relief. And lastly, don’t rush to a psychiatrist for medication (this should be the last resort), unless you have tried talk therapy and they are already advanced in their depression and anxiety, in which case medication may be necessary to get them back to a place where talk therapy can have an impact.

Ultimately, a big part of the solution to the mental health crisis among emerging young adults is to change our ways as adults, parents, and educational leaders. We need to take a good, long look in the mirror at what we are doing to our children in projecting self-sufficiency, independence, and resilience on them before they have even developed a sense of security and safety in their environment. We are expecting too much of our kids and giving too little. We are creating a toxic culture in which they feel they have no alternatives other than to end their lives.

It’s not too late for the adults to fix this, but we need to act quickly to make changes—meaning prioritizing children over everything else in our lives, including material success and work, and allowing our kids to be kids. That means rallying to take the pressure off of them, both internally and externally. Only then can we hope to turn around this epidemic of suicide in young people.

This article was originally published on the Institute for Family Studies blog

Erica Komisar

Erica Komisar, LCSW, is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert, and author of “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters” and “Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents In The New Age Of Anxiety.”

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