Caring for Your Child’s Mental Health From Afar

By Kelly Burch

The transition to college generates both feelings of excitement and anxiety for many young adults. Often, their family feels the same. When your child goes to college, you might wonder how they’ll ever remember to eat breakfast, get to class, follow up on assignments, make friends, and do their laundry. If they’ve struggled with mental health at home, you may also be concerned about whether that issue will worsen while they’re away.

It’s understandable to worry about the mental health of your college student. There are a lot of changes taking place. Plus, it takes time and patience to adjust to new boundaries and relationship dynamics as you navigate the transition from raising a minor to being a support person to your adult. Here’s a guide to supporting your student during this transition.

Before They Go to School

As you visit schools, ask about their policies around notifying parents when school officials are concerned about a student’s mental health. While many schools will notify parents, not all of them will, since your child is now an adult. Make sure you understand the policy at the school your child attends.

If the school won’t notify you, you may need to be more proactive about keeping in touch with your child and monitoring for signs of trouble, especially if they’ve struggled already. Talk to them about how they might manage their mental health on campus and create a communication plan that works for both of you. 

Before your child goes to college, make sure they can manage their health—including mental health. Here’s how to start:

  • Remind them that there’s natural stress that comes with adjusting to college. Many people feel both excited and overwhelmed at the same time.
  • However, make sure they know the signs that their stress is unusually intense or lasting a long time, and whom they can reach out to for support.
  • Support them in transitioning their mental health care or creating a plan to stay in touch with their current care providers. Talk with them about the importance of taking a larger responsibility for their health over time, including their mental health.
  • Make sure your child knows about their health insurance coverage and how insurance works.
  • If they have a mental health condition, discuss the early warning signs that their mental illness is flaring up. Ask them to let you know if they notice any of these.
  • Talk about what you each see as the best role for you in their health care while they’re away and whether it makes sense to create regular times to check in about it.
  • Help them get familiar with student support resources at the school they’ll be attending. 
  • Work with them—and their current providers—to create a crisis plan if they should need mental health care while at school.

This guide to transitioning to college with a mental health condition is useful for both you and your student. Review the guide on your own and encourage your child to do the same. Then, come together to talk about planning their transition to college.

Once They’re at School

When your child has moved off to college, you might worry about whether you’ll know if they’re struggling with their mental health. Here are some things to consider:

  • Keep in touch: In this age of texting, Facebook, and Instagram, sometimes it can feel like we’re constantly connected to everyone we know. But it’s really helpful to actually speak with your child from time to time. You can often discern things from a conversation (tone of voice, emotional feel, and the like) that don’t always come through in a text message or email. Talk to your child regularly, but respect the fact that they might not want to talk as often as you do—that’s typical.

Read more about creating communication expectations together

  • If you’re concerned, ask: Sometimes, parents are afraid to intrude on their child’s privacy. This is certainly a commendable and sensible approach in general. But if something is concerning you, mention it using specific details and examples. (“You sounded really tired yesterday. Are you getting enough sleep?”) Most young people are reassured by their parent taking a concerned interest in their well-being (as long as you don’t overdo it).
  • Trust your gut: You know your child better than anyone else. If you feel something is not right, take this seriously and reach out to them.
  • Use campus support services: If after speaking with your child you’re still feeling uneasy, you can speak with professionals on campus. Remember that while colleges can’t necessarily share information with you about your child (they can in a medical emergency), they can always listen to a concerned family member. They should work with you to find a way to check in with your child and get back to you with some information. You can call the dean of students, or VP of the student affairs office (schools use these terms interchangeably), or the campus counseling service if you’re concerned. These offices should be able to help you and your student establish a plan if they’re experiencing mental health struggles.
  • Report emergencies right away: If your child is talking about violence or self-harm, or sounds markedly different from usual (including disorganized or incoherent speech), it’s important to let the counseling service, campus security, or the campus team for students at risk know right away.

Learn more about talking to your teen about their mental health, asking them if they are thinking about suicide, feeling depressed or are self-injuring

Look for Signs of Mental Health Trouble

Big, sudden, or lasting negative changes in your student’s mood or behavior can be a sign that their mental health is suffering. Even if you’re not living with your college student, you’re likely to notice some of these changes from afar. Familiarize yourself with common signs of mental health struggles. If you notice any of the following, ask your student about them:

  • Chronic or sudden downturns in mood or affect 
  • Odd speech patterns, including talking faster, slower, or incoherently
  • Changes in their typical communication pattern, like calling or texting you much more often, or very rarely
  • Changes in self-care, like not showering or dressing in markedly different ways (sometimes noticeable over video chat or in pictures)
  • Changes in sleep or appetite (though hard to notice when you’re not living together, clues can include texting or posting on social media very late at night or at odd hours)
  • Frequently expressing feelings of hopelessness, frustration, or sadness
  • Having trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • A sudden change in grades or interest in classes
  • Withdrawing from friends or family

Learn more about symptoms of depression, anxiety, and risk of suicide and how you can help connect your student to care if they need it.

How Much Worry Is Too Much?

If you find yourself constantly worried about your child even if they—or campus professionals—say they’re OK, you may be having some trouble separating. Speak to a trusted friend, your partner, or a mental health professional to help you sort out whether your child is actually having a problem or whether you are struggling with the separation. It can be really helpful to get a second opinion sometimes.

If you believe your student might be at immediate risk of harming themself or someone else:

  • Reach out to campus police and let them know this is a mental health concern so that if the school has a coordinated response that involves counseling, that support will be activated. 
  • Contact their resident adviser who can stay with the student and might know how to activate an emergency response. 
  • If possible, stay on the line with your student and encourage them to:
    • Text HOME to 741741 to be connected to a trained mental health counselor at any time of day or night. 
    • Text, call, or chat with the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.