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.”


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 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