Advice from Young Adults: Connect with Your College Student Who is Struggling with Mental Health

College-bound teens and young adults spend months preparing to go off to school. At this part of their journey, they are making decisions about meal plans and where to live, as well as class schedules and financial aid packages. These are not easy decisions. Even more difficult decisions and situations are to come once school starts. Although the focus is on the student during this time of major life change, it’s an important time for parents to take a step back and think: How can I be the best support system for my child during their college career, and foster a relationship built on trust? How can I help my child through a mental health crisis?

According to the 2022 Missouri Assessment of College Health Behaviors, a Partners in Prevention study, nearly half (47 percent) of Missouri college students report having suicidal thoughts in their lifetime, and 25 percent of students report suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months. In the past 12 months, 2.1 percent of students report attempting suicide. It’s no secret that college students are taking on massive amounts of stress. Keeping this research in mind, parents should always have their child’s mental health safety at the top of mind and be  willing to see their child’s point of view from other perspectives.

A Young Adult's Story

While young adults may not be interested in listening to their parents, they may seek advice from someone who has been in their shoes or someone who is close to them in age.

Britt Grindstaff is the Youth and Young Adult Coordinator at the Behavioral Health Network of Greater St. Louis. At the Behavioral Health Network, Britt brings lived experience to her position — as a young adult who has lived with a mental illness — to help inform the organization’s program and projects. Britt attended St. Louis University from 2015 through 2020; she took a brief break from school during her senior year due to mental health challenges. Britt wants parents to understand just how common it is for college to be a tipping point in a students’ mental health journey.

“I’ve witnessed a lot of parents who feel like their child struggling with their mental health came out of left field, and they weren’t prepared to interact and support them within this new context or situation,” Britt says. She urges parents to realize that college can bring overwhelming amounts of stress and anxiety. “There are so many responsibilities and expectations that I often felt completely unprepared for,” she says. “When I expressed how overwhelmed I was, I was often met with, ‘That’s just the way things are’ or I was provided no practical support.”

The Missouri Department of Mental Health works closely with behavioral health providers around the state, such as the Compass Health Network. Wayne Johnson is the Team Lead for the organization’s ACT TAY (Assertive Community Treatment – Transitional Age Youth) program at Compass Health Network, which provides psychosocial services directed to transitional age youth (ages 16-25) with severe and persistent mental illness. He says open communication is the cornerstone of how parents can help their children.

Stress and tired man under mental pressure while reading book preparing examination in library.

“The transitional age of 16-25 can be a very difficult time in figuring out identity, gaining independence and struggling to fit in the world,” Wayne says. “It is especially hard for those who are experiencing mental illness and the side effects that can bring. In our experience working with this age group, we have found that providing a safe space for people to be heard and validated, a structure of consistency, encouraging employment, continued education, or tech training and building a natural support system have been effective in supporting this transition.”

Knowing this information, what else can parents be doing to help their child through tough times? Being non-judgmental is at the top of the list.

“One of the most terrifying moments of my life was when I told my parents I wasn’t passing classes because my depression had gotten so bad,” she explains. “But they didn’t bat an eye. They stepped up to help me connect with student affairs for academic accommodations and gave me the reassurance that this wasn’t something that made me a ‘bad’ student or person.”

Honesty and vulnerability provide other avenues to connect with a struggling student. Having a one-sided conversation may be isolating for them, so be open to sharing your feelings, thoughts and experiences too.

“Being able to have those tough conversations with your child will not only help them feel validated and normalized, but it will help bring you closer,” Britt says. “Ask your child how they want to be supported and respect their answer. You may not be able to ‘fix’ every situation and your young adult may want to make a different choice or approach than you would, but that is okay.”

Most importantly, be open to admitting your mistakes and be transparent in saying “I was wrong.”

“For every instance my parents have been incredible and supportive, there have been moments where they’ve unintentionally caused more harm or made choices that with the knowledge, they have now around mental illnesses they never would consider now,” Britt says. “But they’ve approached those moments with humility and honesty, and used them as opportunities to grow. It can be so difficult to acknowledge when, even with the best intentions, we have caused someone harm or pain but to not acknowledge it is to discredit their experiences and feelings.”

ASAP Help

Mental health support and crisis intervention are always available with the 988 National Crisis  Line. Call or text 988 from anywhere in the U.S. to speak with a trained crisis counselor via a secure online platform. The mental health professional can help talk through issues, including financial-related stress. The Crisis Text Line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Partners in Prevention Helps Missouri Students through Mental Health Struggles

Here’s a daunting statistic about Missouri’s college students and mental health: one in four college students in the state have had suicidal thoughts in the past year. Upon hearing that, parents may turn a blind eye and say, “Yeah, but that’s not my kid.”

But the fact of the matter is, it could very well be your kid, which is why it is vital for college campuses to have easy access to the diverse mental health resources students need.

Enter Missouri’s Partners in Prevention Program, founded more than 20 years ago as an organization that addressed the negative consequences of alcohol use in college students. Today, Partners in Prevention has transformed into a coalition of 24 colleges and universities across the state that are dedicated to addressing healthier and safer campus environments. Partners in Prevention is funded by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, and the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety and Traffic Division. With grants, Partners in Prevention provides campuses technical assistance to analyze the current landscape and determine what each campus needs for its students. No campus is the same.

Joan Masters is the project director for Partners in Prevention and has been with the organization since its inception. “The issues students are facing on campus are very complex,” she says, “and they are experiencing trauma and serious mental health struggles (which could have come forth pre-college) that could lead to suicide.” 

According to Partners in Prevention, 47 percent of Missouri college students report having suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives; 25 percent report having suicidal thoughts in the past year, with 2.1 percent attempting suicide. Fifty-eight percent of students who report having suicidal thoughts or who attempted suicide in the past year have not sought assistance. Students are also experiencing sexual violence on campus and are witnessing perpetrated acts of violence, but they don’t necessarily have the tools and knowledge yet to intervene in those situations.

“What we know is that on every campus, there are students experiencing trauma and struggling with mental health,” says Joan. “They are self-medicating with substances that are either illegal or not prescribed by their doctor, which is not solving their problems.”

For parents, it is so important to prioritize kids’ mental health just as you would physical health, and normalize seeking out help. Parents must look out for and care about all aspects of their child’s mental health in order to properly address suicide prevention. This includes whether or not their child is interacting with substances, if they are caring for their bodies, and if they know how to access and ask for services before they get to college. Joan encourages parents to equip their child with tools such as the ability to recognize if something is physically or mentally not right with their body, when to reach out and get help, how to resist self-medicating, and how to advocate for themselves.

“With these tools, if they are truly at the point of suicidal thoughts or actions, they will know to ask for help before suicide occurs,” says Joan.

What else can parents do to be present and willing to help? Partners in Prevention provides guidance on how to create three critical conversations with their college students about alcohol use, mental health and drugs. Conversations, not lectures, are key to finding out how they feel.

“If you have an 18-year-old going off to college in a few months, and you’ve never spoken to them about mental health, it’s never too late,” Joan reinforces. “Talk about your expectations and what you hope for them. Most importantly, when you talk about why their mental health is important, you aren’t just preparing them for college, but you are preparing them to be an adult. We do not want them to have low knowledge or high stigma around mental health, leading them to not practice those important life skills in college and fail.”

“College is an incredibly supportive environment, and attending college and living in the community is a protective factor against suicide,” Joan continues. “The more we increase those protective factors, and increase our child’s knowledge and willingness to receive help, the more likely kids will gain skills to successfully navigate through life.”

Over Joan’s two-decade career at Partners in Prevention, a lot has changed. She says less students are using alcohol, instead choosing to live a sober lifestyle, regardless of age. More students are coming to campuses appropriately medicated. However, marijuana use has risen over the past decade, with students believing cannabis is a cure for something and not understanding how it affects them. There are also more students than ever who have experienced sexual trauma, and they are coming to campus needing treatment for bigger issues than college counselors can address. With all of these very complex issues, students are finding it difficult to navigate through, which makes it increasingly important for parents to cultivate a safe space for their child to understand their mental health and to get help.

“Normalize mental health services and talk to your kids about what they are feeling and what they are thinking about, and ask if they need assistance with mental health care,” Joan says. “Create an ‘In this house, we seek therapy’ environment to take down the stigmas.”

If you find that your child is really struggling, let them know that it is OK to say that they need a time out and to consider taking a semester off to work on their mental health, de-stress, and get better. After all, they are what always matters.

Missouri’s Partners in Prevention program is the go-to resource for college campuses in Missouri. To access resources such as brochures, recommended readings, fact sheets and the program’s blog, visit www.mopip.org. Partners in Prevention also helps lead “Ask. Listen. Refer.” a statewide online suicide prevention training program created for campuses throughout Missouri. To get started, take the 20-minute survey at www.asklistenrefer.org.

Suicide Prevention for College Students

College represents so much to a student — the opportunity to start a fresh chapter in their lives and work toward their professional and personal goals. But it also represents a significant shift in lifestyle and habits; it is a period of transitions and lots of change. While some students can weather through the difficult times, there is no doubt these challenges have the potential to become too much.

A supportive group console a woman who is facing away from the camera, she looks distraught.The New York Times took a look at the pressure college students put on themselves and found that students who excelled in high school expect to do the same in college. While this is a common aspiration, it can cause them struggle. Students may worry about larger class sizes, more challenging curriculum, deadlines and difficulty managing time, as well as finances, student loans, and keeping up with extracurricular activities or a job. Combined, this can have profound effects on mental health… and in the worst-case scenario, can lead to the possibility of suicidal thoughts.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is now the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-43 in the U.S. This daunting statistic leads to so many other questions too. NAMI states, “A 2018 study found that at any time within the last 12 months, 41% of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function and 62% felt overwhelming anxiety.” It is also estimated that one in five college students has a substance use disorder. 

Mental Health America of California says many forms of mental illness first emerge during the college years, often coinciding with young adults’ first time living away from home. In fact, more than one in three college students have reported that they have been “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

Mental Health America of California goes even further in their findings about college students and mental health. According to the 2016 Annual Report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s (CCMH), there was a 5% increase in college enrollment, nationwide, accompanied by 30% increase in demand for mental health services, between 2010 and 2016. And of those students in treatment at college counseling centers, approximately:

  • One in two have received psychological services in the past five years
  • One in 10 have been psychiatrically hospitalized before
  • One in four report engaging in self-injurious behavior, such as cutting
  • One in three have seriously considered suicidth

What Families, Students, and Colleges Can Do

A woman comforting her friend with a hug.Suicides are preventable. Improving mental health and trauma literacy is a critical step in decreasing suicides and recognizing the warning signs to get people the help they need as early as possible. Students, parents and family, and colleges and community organizations can make a commitment to enhance their mental health literacy by using any of the following resources provided in Missouri.

Training programs like Mental Health First Aid Missouri, Missouri Suicide Prevention Network, Missouri Ask, Listen, Refer or Missouri Department of Mental Health Trauma Informed Care E-Learning Course are available to the public and can be taken by anyone with access to internet.

NAMI outlines these actions that can be taken by students, parents and family members, and colleges to lower the risk of suicide: 

  • Address concerns as soon as possible. Depression and teenage angst look similar, but if you think something is indeed wrong, be up front with your child about it — this will increase the likelihood of early recognition and diagnosis of an issue and improve treatment outcomes.
  • Encourage your child to talk about their mental health challenges with a counselor, family member or trusted adult. Fear of overreaction is a reason why some students may not feel comfortable speaking to parents. Be supportive and receptive to these discussions and how they can help get treatment.
  • If students have a pre-existing mental health condition, help create a college transition plan that outlines treatment continuity.
  • Parents and family members should be in contact with the campus counseling center if HIPAA and FERPA waivers are obtained from the student.
  • Drive home the importance of self-care and where to go on campus for emotional and academic support. Connect with fellow parents on college parent portals, Facebook groups and other online forums to discuss ways to get involved and advocate for resources and programming that address student mental health.
  • Discuss stories in news and media to have preventative conversations with your child about mental health, overdose or suicide deaths. They probably have thoughts, opinions and concerns they would share with you if asked. You may learn more about your child’s own mental health or substance use in the process.
  • Make a commitment to learn about mental health literacy to have a better understanding of what to look for and how to talk about mental health, suicide and substance use.
  • Students should be aware of and know how to recognize signs of mental health issues in order to help their fellow classmates or get help themselves. Help could include practicing self-care and being supportive to friends and classmates.
  • Talk, talk, talk! Students are more likely to talk with another student about their distress rather than with an older adult. Students should utilize on-campus student mental health resources and advocate for support and programming on campus.
  • Improve your mental health and trauma literacy by taking courses to learn more about mental health, suicide and trauma recovery. Resources may be available on campus, through the campus course catalog or through online resources.
  • Identify students who are at risk for mental health illness, alcohol abuse and drug use problems. Colleges should provide assistance to support the transition from high school to college.
  • Support social connections on campus that are aimed at promoting inclusivity between students who feel disconnected or isolated and students who are traditionally marginalized or at higher risk.
  • Foster an environment that makes it easy and comfortable for students to ask for help. There should be easy access to mental health resources and support.
  • Providing on-campus access to substance abuse and mental health services is vital.
  • Create an institutional response to student suicide, death or emergency. Crisis management procedures, such as access to emergency services or local and national crisis resources, should always be in place.
  • Support education around vital life skills, such as how social- emotional and physical wellness can impact academic success.
  • Provide training opportunities for faculty and staff to learn more about mental health, suicide prevention and trauma sensitive schools.

Seeking Help

Make sure your child knows that help is just a call or text away. Mental health support and crisis intervention are always available with the 988 Crisis Line or Crisis Text Line. Just text MO SAFE” or HOME” to 741-741 from anywhere in the U.S. to speak with a trained crisis counselor via a secure online platform. Through texting, the counselor can help talk through issues, including financial-related stress. The Crisis Text Line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

HappierU also has many resources to help. Visit the Show Me Hope Crisis Counseling Program’s YouTube page or short videos providing tips, advice and exercises anyone can do to manage and reduce stress, promote positive personal growth, and help you live a happier life using science-based methods.

How to Support Your Child During Their Time in College

Having a strong support system is crucial for college students. Over four years, they have to deal with the pressure of keeping up with tougher curriculum and forming new study habits, all the while balancing new friendships and maintaining old ones, joining new organizations and activities, staying in touch with family, and possibly working at a new job. Nonetheless, it is exhausting. All the more reason they should have an army of support behind them to cope with stress, anxiety and depression.

Young depressed asian woman hug her friend for encouragement.Family members, close friends, classmates, professors, teaching assistants, counselors and advisors all provide help and resources in their own way, making the college transition and overall experience much smoother and easier for students. Parents, however, may have the biggest supporter role of all. From early on in the college decision-making process, parents should serve as a guiding light for their child as they make decisions that could affect the next four years of their lives. Which college is best for them, and how do you know? What kind of financial aid do they need? Are they applying for scholarships, grants and loans?

Once a student heads off to college, these questions could shift to ones about mental health concerns and what kind of support parents should provide their kids while they are going to school.

The statistics around college students and mental health are alarming. According to a 2021 Healthy Minds Network study of college student mental health, 34 percent of respondents had anxiety disorder and 41 percent reported depression. Furthermore, a study from Boston University found that from 2013 to 2021, rates of depression among college students increased by 135% and rates of anxiety increased by 110 percent. The pressure college students face daily is real, and some are struggling to keep up. Parents should be aware and alert of changes in their child’s attitude and behaviors, which can inform just how much support the child may need at a given moment.

Facing Challenges Head-On

With rising concerns around college and mental health, how can you be supportive of your college student without being overbearing? When is the best time to approach them and offer your help? What do you do if they don’t want to listen to you or take your advice? These are all great questions to ask yourself if you find that your child is facing a challenging time on campus. Marcia Morris, M.D., writes for the National Alliance on Mental Illness that you should remember the five T’s: Tell, Test, Teach, Talk, Take Action.

  • Low angle portrait of teenage African-American student sitting on floor in their room and studyingTell your child that they can come to you with any problem. Some children may fear what you may say in response to their issue, or feel like they are burdening you with their problems. Remind them that you are always there for them and are always ready to lend an ear to listen.
  • Test their academic health by checking their end-of-semester grades. Students who are doing poorly and failing in school may be suffering from anxiety or depression, and unfortunately, they may think they are on their own in figuring out their school problems. Work to stay abreast of their academic standing throughout the semester, and encourage them to use on-campus resources and seek guidance from their advisors and counselors.
  • Teach them how to recognize depression and anxiety. Remember those stats referenced earlier in this post? One in 3 students have reported having an anxiety disorder, and 4 in 10 have reported depression. Teach your child to identify warning signs such as excessive worrying, overuse of substances like drugs or alcohol, inability to carry out daily activities, and thoughts of suicide. Anxiety and depression are treatable conditions. Your child has the ability to recognize how they are doing.
  • Whether they give off stress or not, Talk with them frequently through phone calls, texts, or video calls. Or better yet, pay them a visit at their school, especially if you know they have been feeling down. (It is also important to plan a weekend visit at least once during the first semester of their freshman year.)
  • Finally, Take Action if your child is experiencing severe symptoms of mental illness, such as suicidal thoughts. Help them find treatment immediately and guide them to stay actively involved in their treatment. If you have an immediate cause for concern about their safety, contact campus police and mental health services.

Other Ways You Can Help

Close up of African-American psychologist taking notes on clipboard in therapy session for childrenSarah Curzi, PhD encourages the creation of a “mental health plan” that encourages parents and children to be open to conversations about mental health struggles and concerns, in an effort to destigmatize them. In an article for Collegiate Parent, Curzi says to share contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline as well as the community mental health resources available at school such as counseling or psychological services, or student health primary care providers. Make sure students understand their student health insurance plan, and what a copay is and what in-network versus out-of-network means. Some may not seek help because of costs, so let them know of what is available to them, including free or sliding scale clinics. Help them identify ways to build community and maintain social contact around them. Most of all, always be available.

Call or Text for Crisis Support

One of the best ways to support your child is to remind them that help is just a call or text away. Mental health support and crisis intervention are always available with the 988 Crisis Line or Crisis Text Linefrom anywhere in the U.S. to speak with a trained crisis counselor via a secure online platform. Through texting, the counselor can help talk through issues, including financial-related stress. 988 is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When Does the Brain Reach Maturity? It’s Later than You Think

Life is full of milestones. Many are based on age: getting your driver’s license at 16, voting for the first time at 18, and being able to purchase alcohol at 21. With all these big events, you may think that your teen or twenty-something is officially a grown-up and ready for anything. Their brain, however, isn’t.

Dr. Angeline Stanislaus is the Chief Medical Officer for the Missouri Department of Mental Health. She says that, while it may seem like an 18, 20, or 22-year-old is able to make adult decisions, they are not developmentally ready just yet. This is because the brain’s frontal lobe, especially the prefrontal cortex, isn’t fully mature until around age 25.

The development of the pre-frontal cortex of the frontal lobe allows us to process the pros and cons of a decision before it is made. “It lets us to do things most animals cannot,” explains Dr. Stanislaus. “Decision making, logical thinking, reasoning — all of those things happen because of the frontal lobe.”

a young student smiling and holding a model of the human brain.

The prefrontal cortex is associated with planning and problem-solving. MIT’s Young Adult Development Project explains that it connects all parts of the brain. “The prefrontal cortex communicates more fully and effectively with other parts of the brain, including those that are particularly associated with emotion and impulses, so that all areas of the brain can be better involved in planning and problem-solving.”

So, what does this mean for young adults? And why is it important for students, parents, and teachers to understand brain growth and development?

Think about the brain’s development under the umbrella of what kinds of decisions typically face teens and young adults. For example, with an under-developed brain, they may be more inclined to speed without thinking of the consequences, such as getting a ticket or causing an accident when they are driving in a hurry. If they are out with friends and presented with alcohol or drugs, they may not think about the short-term and long-term consequences of this behavior – what it means to fail a drug test at work, develop an addiction, or the legal consequences of substance use.     

The Role of Parents

While time is necessary for optimal brain development, there are things parents can do to help their child until their brain reaches full maturity. A story about young adult brain development by Today.com encourages parents to help their child maintain independence by taking responsibility for themselves in school and at work. If they ask for your advice in solving a problem, don’t solve it for them; instead, get them to build their own problem-solving skills by asking what they think they should do or if there is another way to handle the issue. Encourage them to reach out to an advisor on campus if they need additional help.

There are ways parents can help train the brain much earlier. Encourage your child to find a job, which can build decision-making skills and allow young adults to thrive in different situations. Your child can become better at money management and understand the consequences of their actions.

Staying Involved and Engaged

smiling father hugging happy teen son while he doing homeworkIt is important to create a level of excitement for kids at a young age, whether it’s through a job, hobby, sports or another healthy activity. Otherwise, the young mind tends to gravitate towards unhealthy ways of achieving enjoyment, such as risk-taking behaviors. 

“Because the prefrontal cortex is not developed, kids are not thinking about the consequences of their actions because they are just enjoying the experience,” explains Dr. Stanislaus. She says that for 14 and 15-year-olds, it is critical for parents and schools to foster productive, positive experiences for them, such as sports or other healthy communal activities. Kids who are more involved in such activities and have more structure to their day are less likely to do drugs and engage in risky behaviors, compared to kids who do not have structure to their day.

With the development of the prefrontal cortex happening through the mid-twenties, it’s not difficult to see that, as college students grow older, their behaviors change. “With freshmen and sophomores, they are more focused on having a good time and don’t think much about the consequences. Getting to all their classes and keeping good grades are not often a priority for them,” says Dr. Stanislaus. But by the time they are seniors, they have different behaviors, and are more focused on their careers. That behavior continues through their twenties as they plan for their future. They are much more responsible, looking more closely at their career paths, and determining life goals.

Tech and Young Minds

Girl gamer sits in profile with her phone in her hands.Today.com reinforces that while young adults are capable of making decisions, “They must work harder than mature adults to stay focused, make responsible choices and avoid risky behaviors. 24/7 access to technology via smart phones and the Internet can impact developing minds. “The developing brain is often overwhelmed by information overload. And while the brain is still developing, this can lead teens and young adults to appear unfocused, not goal-oriented, and to engage in risky behaviors.”

Dr. Stanislaus points out that social media consumption can have a negative effect on kids. Those who spend more time on social media have a higher risk of anxiety and depression. This is because they are always seeking likes and comments for social approval and validation, and the fear of missing out makes them feel insecure.

Social media also lessens face-to-face interaction and the good feelings that comes with it. Dr. Stanislaus stresses how vital it is for teens and young adults to socialize in person. “Human beings need engagement and interaction,” she says. “With social interaction from working in school or on projects with partners, there is a joy that is created, and they need that joy. Social media cuts away time in engaging in social activities that can bring happiness.”

The Takeaways

The most important thing parents should do, says Dr. Stanislaus, is to support their young adult as their brain develops. Kids are going to make mistakes — even when they are well into their twenties. Give them freedom, but help them understand the consequences of that freedom, while reinforcing positive behaviors. Show them ways to work through problems. If they do cross the line, talk through what happened and allow them to face the consequences within a safe structure. Allow mistakes to be made, but help your child learn from them.