Supportive parenting: Kids, college, and depression

I’ve spent most of my adult life working with kids and families. Through my mom blog, I get to read and have conversations with other parents who are invested in figuring out the whole “parenting” thing.

Pretty much every conversation I have with other parents can be summed up with one sentence: “Being a parent is hard work.” And moms and dads with younger kids, who are still struggling with diapers, tantrums, bedtimes or teen angst are generally shocked when I tell them that the hard stuff doesn’t end when the kids hit the college years and strike out on their own.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a study in 2011 concluded that 30% of college students reported themselves as feeling so depressed it was difficult to function. Six percent of college students reported seriously considering suicide.The college years are seriously stressful in many ways, Compounding that reality is the fact that there are several mental illnesses that manifest themselves at the ages kids tend to be while they’re away at college.

I can back one of those statistics up with personal experience. With three kids in college, we’ve had two who found themselves in need of treatment for depression and anxiety during their university years. The third has consulted with me several times regarding close friends at college who were struggling with depression and were resistant to seeking help.

I feel unbelievably lucky that all three of our children reached out to me when they recognized that they (or someone they cared about) were fighting the life-threatening illness of depression. Because, to be honest, universities are a really crappy place to fall victim to a serious illness. I don’t care how many reassurances they give you at parent orientation about the health center, the counseling services, and how well they’ll care for your kids. In my experience with four different universities that’s a crock. Not only is care from these services very carefully rationed, it’s not good quality. And, I’m sorry to say, two of the institutions I have experience with have world-class reputations for their medical schools.

I say all this not to scare those of you who have a child heading off to college in the near future. But I am a strong advocate for deliberately keeping in touch with your college student. Have a frank conversation well before move-in day about depression symptoms and increased risk over the college years. Once school starts, check in regularly – it doesn’t have to be intrusive, just sincere. Go out of your way once a week or so to send a short “thinking of you” text. “Good morning – you’re awesome!” “You’re going to rock that mid-term today!” “Thinking of you today. What’s new?”

And I don’t think it’s too much to touch base when they’re home for break. Ask some deliberate questions about stress level, what they’re doing for fun, how they’re managing their time, what kind of support systems they’re developing among other students.

They don’t need us any less just because they’ve hit that magic age of 18.

-Amy

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4 Responses

  1. This is so true! As a college student myself, I came from a very supportive family background, so going off to the university was a huge change in itself. I’ve also read that current college students are experiencing depression and anxiety at higher rates partially because recent parenting practices have called for a lot of structure and support from parents, which kids end up depending on more than we would like to admit, only to have that disappear with college.

  2. Thanks for this great article……and I agree about the quality (or lack thereof) of university health and counseling centers.

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