What to Know About Stress and Your College Student
Stress is a normal part of life, especially during periods of transition and uncertainty like moving away to college. Going to college can be stressful for a variety of reasons, including new routines and expectations, ramped-up academics, and unfamiliar surroundings. It’s a lot for your student to manage—even if some of it is fun. And while not all stress is bad, too much chronic stress can lead to anxiety and other mental and physical health conditions.
We know from research that today’s students are feeling more stressed out than their parents did. In fact, what students say causes the most stress is their own mental health. According to a 2023 study by TimelyMD, 50% of students who took the survey cited their mental health as a top stressor. A 2022 Gallup survey found similar results, with 55% of students having considered stopping out of their degree program due to emotional stress.
Sources of Stress
Today’s college students face different kinds of pressures than previous generations, but some stressors—like learning new time management skills and developing a healthy routine—have always been and will continue to be challenges for young adults in this transition period. Some other sources of stress your student may be contending with include:
- Continual and mounting academic demands
- Program costs
- Personal finances and money anxiety
- New autonomy and caring for themselves (sleep, eating habits, physical wellness)
- Relationship issues, including dating and changes in family relationships
- Time management
- Awareness of their gender identity and sexual orientation
- Constant social stimulation or pressure to socialize
Help Them Help Themselves
Being a listening ear can be a great starting point for providing support for your student. But if you find they’re hesitant to open up—maybe they feel guilty for struggling because they’re aware of what college is costing the family, or they want to manage things on their own—there are simple ways to get the conversation started.
- Be authentic: Talking about mental health can be hard. If you’re feeling anxious or you aren’t sure where to start with your student, you can share that with them. You might say something like, “I’m not sure how to have this conversation, but I know I want to. I care about you and want to talk about these things, even if it’s hard or a little awkward at first.”
- Make a plan: If your student is overwhelmed by coursework, help them make a plan to regularly check in with the tutoring center. A tutor can help hold them accountable to deadlines and share new organizational skills, which can reduce their overall stress level. Or, you can help them make a plan to talk to an academic advisor, who may have ideas about how to succeed in certain classes or work well with professors.
- Ask open-ended questions: Simply asking “Are you OK?” might not result in very detailed responses. Instead, get a little more specific and leave room for your student to explain where they’re coming from. You might try “When we talk on the phone, I noticed you seem very stressed. Is that how you feel? Do you feel like talking about it? Is there any way I can help?”
- Share resources: In partnership with your student, explore campus resources online to determine which might be beneficial during this time. Your student’s college or university may offer group workshops or counseling, peer groups, events that help to de-stress, and more.
How to Recognize Stress in Your Student
It’s not always easy to separate out regular stress from chronic stress that could be affecting your student’s mental health, especially if they’re attending school far from home. However, there are specific signs and symptoms to look out for that may indicate your student is experiencing a mental health condition:
- Seeming worried, overwhelmed, or hopeless most of the time
- Lacking energy
- Reporting physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches
- Having big changes in their eating or sleeping habits
- Not taking care of their personal hygiene
- Distancing from the people they care about
- Using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with stress
- Procrastinating studies or missing deadlines
- Behaving in a way that your gut tells you is off
While some of these behaviors are difficult to assess from afar, do your best to check in with your student, and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts as a parent. If you feel your student is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can:
- Tell them to walk over to the counseling or health services office and ask to speak to someone immediately
- Have your student go online to their school’s website to seek out information about getting help immediately
- Urge them to tell their RA or advisor that they need help
- If possible, stay on the line with your student and encourage them to:
- Text HOME to 741-741 to be connected to a trained mental health counselor at any time of day or night.
- Text, call, or chat the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988
If you think your student is in crisis and cannot advocate for themself or manage the situation on their own, you can:
- Call the campus counseling or health services center if it’s during regular business hours
- Check the university’s website for information on reporting an emergency or crisis situation
- If you’re concerned about your student’s immediate physical welfare, call campus security and specifically share that you are concerned about a mental health crisis