As the new academic year begins, parents of children starting college for the first time, or those going back for another year, are helping their children move into dorms and new apartments, and experiencing goodbyes both joyful and tearful. But for some of these parents, this time of excitement and discovery comes with a specific set of fears and anxieties. When we hear about mental health in college, we tend to hear in broad terms about how the stress of university programs, and of the journey into independent living, affects young adults. What we hear less often are the stories of how students with anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, substance use disorder, or a number of other struggles, navigate the transition into college; further, the stories of students who experience such struggles for the first time in college are often played off as part and parcel to the journey into adulthood. Normalizing such serious conditions can cause students and their families to believe what they are going through is simply to be expected, and can in fact, delay many from seeking out critical support and help.

As an online mental health community, Other Parents Like Me (OPLM) hears from many parents of students struggling with mental health conditions going off to college for the first time, or navigating other phases of the college journey. This transition can be difficult at the best of times, but as families navigate it amidst the ongoing the COVID-19 pandemic, there are new fears, and no scripts to follow. As parents figure out new ways to support their children through the journey into and through college, OPLM is committed to supporting the parents themselves, with the understanding that parents who receive mental health support are better able to support their children in turn.

College Culture and Mental Health

Many parents and students have a set idea of what the “college experience” should look like. Phrases like “the best four years of your life” create the expectation of a college as a rite of passage, a time when you find out who you are and grow into adulthood. Students whose experience doesn’t look like this may feel like they “failed at” college, especially if they are left with enormous debt afterwards. In reality, there is no set vision of what college “should” look like, and an increasing variance of what the “college experience” does look like. With program differences, the potential for multiple majors and minors, working through college versus not, engagement in Greek life or extracurriculars, no two students’ experiences look exactly the same–in fact, the most universal aspect of today’s “college experience” seems to be high stress levels and no time to rest.

While college provides an exciting opportunity for students to grow, learn, and discover who they are and who they want to be, the other side of this coin must be acknowledged. With the increasing amount that students are expected to accomplish in the same 4-year period, “hustle culture” and “rise and grind” mentalities are the norm, and they take a toll. Even for those entering college with no pre-existing mental health struggles, the new landscape can be a lesson in stress. When it comes to adjusting to a university environment, it’s not just living in a new space, paying your own bills for (perhaps) the first time, and cooking your own meals that creates stress; it’s also the stress that comes with having classes in some cases from 08:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and still finding time to study, hold down a job, and maintain some semblance of a social life–on top of the weight of mounting student loan debt. This can amount to many students effectively working over 40+ hours in a given week, and those around them finding it perfectly normal. The University of Georgia Health Center reported in 2021 that students at the university were getting an average of 6-6.9 hours of sleep per night; many experienced chronic sleep deprivation, and others noted that their sleep schedules were further disrupted when their schools switched to an online format. From mental health research, we know that chronic stress and lack of sleep can exacerbate the symptoms of nearly every mental health condition, and can often lead to such conditions emerging in the first place. With the introduction of COVID-19 in this equation, it comes as no surprise that more students than ever are struggling with mental health conditions in college (National Institute of Mental Health; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

COVID-19 and the “College Experience”

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, all of our lives were turned upside-down. For students already in college, there was a rapid adjustment in day-to-day life, with classes going online, and many students moving away from campus support systems (often back home with their parents). For those who remained on campus, life looked increasingly insular. Many universities hosted large graduation ceremonies online, and recent graduates entered a post-graduation world like no other, where getting a job was not only exceedingly difficult, but also exceedingly dangerous, and there was no longer any viable script to follow. For those in high school about to enter college, the last years of their high school education for many existed within the walls of their home, and thousands of students left for college feeling less academically and socially prepared than classes before them. Those in early phases of college at the start of the pandemic reported feeling emotional distancing in addition to physical distancing, with perceived negative changes in their relationships and increased strain in their social lives. When thinking about mental health during college, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overlooked, as it has and continues to alter many aspects of university life.

“Unprecedented Times”: Parenting a College Student in 2022

While many families experience the joys and fears of students making the transition from high school to college, far fewer families have experienced that transition within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether students start their classes online from their family home, or move across the country into a dorm for their program, everyone entering college right now feels the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, organizations from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to the National Institute of Mental Health have reported significant increases in the percentage of youth struggling with a mental health condition, and increases in emergency room visits and substance use among youth. As such, more students than ever are entering college with a pre-existing mental health condition, and more parents than ever are experiencing the anxieties that come along with that. In other cases, mental health struggles may emerge while a student is already in college, in part due to the pressures of adjusting to the new environment and expectations. When this happens, parents may have no idea how much their child is struggling, as they know only what their child chooses to share. They may suspect something has changed, but they are not around their child enough to know.  Alternatively, their child may share with their family that they are struggling, but distance and a number of other factors limit how much a family support system can help.

While students may have access to support networks of friends in college, or free mental health resources through their university, OPLM encounters many parents struggling right alongside their children. Parents who feel lost and helpless in the face of their child’s struggles, or overwhelmed by their own anxiety about their child’s well-being in college, and either lack social and professional support, or dismiss their own mental health needs entirely. As an organization, we work to acknowledge this mental health gap, and to understand how we can best support parents while they are trying to support their children.

Supporting Parents As They Support Their Children

As a mental health community, we have found that peer support can be one of the most effective avenues for creating connection and breaking the barriers of social isolation often faced by parents of struggling youth. Through peer-support meetings by trained Peer Parents, and access to a support directory for those seeking additional support for themselves or family members, OPLM seeks to remind parents that:

  1. They are not alone
  2. Supporting themselves and recognizing their own mental health needs is not selfish, and is in fact part of showing up for their children
  3. They cannot rescue their children from everything in life on their own.

Though families struggling with mental health tend to isolate and remove themselves from their social networks, there are an increasing number of families around them who can relate to their experiences. As an organization, our goal is to amplify the conversation around youth mental health, and to have these conversations in the absence of shame and stigma. If you are a parent of a college student right now, or of a student who is preparing for college, it is crucial to understand that this is not a journey that you and your family must take alone. There are other families like you, and recognizing when you need additional support can be a crucial part of being able to sustainably support your child through this journey. I am a parent too. I have been there and I am still there. I have learned to thrive as a parent with children in college by taking care of myself and finding a place to see and hear from other parents who get it. Our children’s journey in college is not always the Facebook picture that is shared. And that is ok.

Originally posted to College Scoops on September 23,2022