Mental Health and Your College Student: Things You Can Do To Help Your Child Now


unhappy college student

Written by CIT Consultant Susan Whalen

We’ve all heard the grim news: mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, and more are steeply rising among high school and college age students.  Coping effectively with these issues can be sufficiently challenging when your teenage child is at home with you, but once your child has flown the coop for college – news of mental health problems can strike quick terror in the heart of any parent.

A study recently released by Boston University School of Public Health Professor Sarah Ketchen Lipson details some of the factors giving rise to the sharp upward trajectory in mental health problems among college students. In a survey with 33,000 respondents, half screened positive for anxiety and depression. Though Lipson notes that the college years are when lifetime mental illnesses most frequently emerge, importantly she also emphasizes the vitality of college as a “crucial setting” in which evaluation, prevention, and treatment can make a true positive impact. 

“… 83 percent of students said their mental health had negatively impacted their academic performance within the past month, and two-thirds of college students are struggling with loneliness and feeling isolated—an all-time high prevalence that reflects the toll of the pandemic and the social distancing necessary to control it.”

college student studying at nightFollowing are some tips we’ve culled from mental health professionals and a survey of college sources that may help parents with children in college who are coping with mental health issues.


  • Review with your child the essential skills that can keep mental health problems at bay.  Help your child toward mindfulness of the best practices you inculcated while they were living at home: eating and sleeping well were things you could monitor when you were living a family life, but how is your child doing with those things now?  If you don’t know: ask. Check in! 


Too, colleges typically offer a strong range of exercise options for students, included in their student fees or at minimal cost. Help your child find those resources. Fitness classes or an ID card for the college fitness facility are easy to access. 


  • Have an explicit conversation with your child during which you compile a List of Trusted Adults. Who can they reach out to when feeling troubled?  Begin with a list of the adults the student really trusted in high school: someone in the high school counseling office, family members, friends, teachers, coaches, adults at places of worship, for example. Then, add to that list people the student believes they can talk to at college: a professor they really like, the dorm RA, their academic tracker or adviser, a student club adviser.  


Review this list, and emphasize that your child can and should reach out when they begin to feel overwhelmed and need academic, social, and mental health support.


  • Roommate issues – a common problem, especially among college first years – can be addressed with dormitory Resident Assistants.  Students should not hesitate to reach out to their RAs; it is the job of the RA to mediate these issues, and they are trained to do so (and serve as a direct connection to college personnel).  Moving to a new room with a new roommate, or even to a single room, may be possible – but the student must communicate with the RA for resolution to begin.


  • A trip to the college’s Wellness Center, or googling resources with search terms like “wellness options for undergraduates (name of school)” will allow you quick access to information on general health, including mental health and substance abuse counseling services. Engaging these services can help your child to begin feeling better, upping their resilience and general sense of well-being.  


  •  If there is a substantial problem – a problem happening now, or even your inner sense that one may be developing – a phone call to your college’s Dean of Students may be in order.  It is the job of the Dean of Students to oversee the specific welfare of your child. (The title may vary:  Dean of Students, or Dean of Student Affairs).


college student readingMany parents believe that they lose the ability to understand how their child is doing, to discuss serious problems, or even to ask for help, once that child sets foot on campus, but that is not necessarily the case. While the student in most cases will be the one who must decide whether sensitive information will be shared with parents or other trusted adults, there is still a great deal a parent can do to set the wheels of help in motion. (Search for “mental health, confidentiality, rights and responsibilities Grinnell College” for example, to learn about confidentiality issues and how they are carried out at your child’s college).


Help the college help your child, by making that phone call.  One CIT parent who made this move recently told us that he was surprised by the help that came his child’s way, once he spoke to an Assistant Dean of Students at his child’s college. The child was assigned a caseworker, and the college immediately set appointments to begin therapy for newly emerging anxiety issues that were impacting academic performance, among other issues. The college was quick and communicative, and a plan was put in place. You should expect nothing less; but nothing can happen until you reach out.  


You are paying for college. The Dean of Students works for you and your student. Think of it that way, and don’t be shy about calling if you are in need. It is not pesty to call the Dean’s office and to speak respectfully about your child’s mental health wellbeing and needs, and to expect a response from the Dean’s office. Depending on the size of the University, you may either speak to the Dean directly, or to someone on their staff.


  • Finally: If you believe your child may be in danger:  Don’t call the college for help.  Call for emergency services. 911 calls cannot be transferred to other towns, cities or states. The best option to obtain emergency assistance in a different state, county or city is to dial the 10-digit phone number for law enforcement in the town in which your child lives.


Hang in there, parents. We hope it helps to know that to the extent that your college student is having mental health problems, they are not alone, and YOU are not alone. One result of Professor Lipson’s research is especially comforting to us all: the stigma around mental health, and seeking help for mental health, has substantially subsided. 


So take that step and help your child reach out, and do it yourself if that is the next best move for your family. Actively engage your child  in conversations about their wellbeing, knowing  that with some forbearance: help awaits you and them. 


Additional resources:

Mental Health in College | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Transitioning From High School to College With A Psychiatric Illness: Preparation

Starting the Conversation | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness


For Families | The Jed Foundation


College Mental Health Websites We Love

Adjustment & homesickness | Counseling Center | Fort Lewis College  Great advice for your student on homesickness, connecting with others, and learning to “be present” in their new environments

Be Well – Student Affairs   University of Wisconsin Madison

Warning Signs of Possible Problems – Counseling Service – Lewis & Clark

LGBTQ+ Health  Tulane University