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When It’s Not Just Homesickness

What to do when your college student is in crisis.

Key points

  • Parents are a critical safety net when a college student experiences a mental health crisis.
  • College students may be more vulnerable to a crisis due to increased rates of depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Parents can effectively help their college student through a crisis when they practice self-care, find the helpers, and maintain hope.

“Dad, I know I told you I was doing fine in school, but I failed all my classes last semester. I’ve been too depressed and anxious to get out of bed,” Ella, a college freshman, says when she is home for winter break.

As a psychiatrist working with college students for over twenty-five years, I see mental health crises like these on a regular basis. With a student’s permission, I enlist the help of parents to problem solve how we can get the student feeling better and back on track. Parents are a critical safety net in the college years.

In Ella’s case, her parents find her a therapist and psychiatrist over winter break so she can begin treatment. She transfers her care to campus mental health services when she returns to school, and she agrees to have her parents sign into part of the first session. Her mental health providers link her to a success coach on campus who will meet with her regularly to provide encouragement while monitoring her academic progress.

It is not uncommon for university students to have mental health crises, as three quarters of mental health problems emerge before age twenty-four. The social isolation and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated mental health problems like depression and anxiety in young adults. Many college students were lonely during the height of the pandemic, and now they are trying to readjust to being with others and getting to class on time.

Homesickness versus Mental Health Crisis

How do you know if your child is just homesick or experiencing a mental health crisis? Some freshmen and even sophomores will experience homesickness and feel sad, have trouble making friends, or not do as well in school as they would like. If the sadness is so severe that they have suicidal thoughts and cannot function academically or socially, your student is moving into crisis territory. Below are examples that differentiate homesickness from a mental health crisis.

Homesickness

  • Expresses sadness over missing friends and family
  • Calls home tearfully, wishing they could be with you and not in school
  • Doing okay in class but feels they could be doing better
  • May have trouble making friends

Mental Health Crisis

  • So sad they are having trouble getting out of bed
  • In so much emotional pain they wish they would not wake up in the morning
  • Has done very little work and may fail classes
  • Stays in room as they are too anxious to meet others

As a parent, you can be highly effective in coaching your college student through a crisis with five steps.

5 Steps for Coaching Your College Student Through a Mental Health Crisis

1. Practice self-care

Put your oxygen mask on first! You will not have the energy to help your child without taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat healthfully, exercise, reach out to friends. Maintain as much calm as you can with yoga and meditation. Talk with a therapist if you need to. Most importantly, don’t blame yourself for what is happening. Problems can emerge in college students despite your best efforts. Move forward and see what steps you can take now to help.

2. Find the helpers

Mr. Rogers famously said: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” If your child’s mental health problems are interfering with school, find an ally in the Dean of Students office or Disability Resource Center to work with your child. Help your child locate a therapist and/or psychiatrist and collaborate with them when mental health problems are severe. If your child is hospitalized, it is important you speak with the treatment team to develop an aftercare plan. Your student will need to sign release forms that allow administrative and mental health staff to speak with you. However, you can convey information when there is an emergency even if a release form is not signed.

3. Communicate assertively

When a family member is ill with a medical or mental health problem, it is easy to get overwhelmed. To communicate clearly with those helping your student, make a list of your top concerns, your questions, and what you would like to see happen. If you cannot get what you need, ask to speak with a supervisor or an administrator. When talking with your child, be empathetic and calm, but also express what you think would be helpful, which could range from returning home to seek more intense services, to remaining at school and working with local mental health resources.

4. Trust but verify

While your student recovers from a mental health crisis, ensure they are making progress. You want to rely on what they tell you, but if they are doing poorly, they may not report their difficulties as they don’t want to make you feel worse. Therefore, maintain some contact with the mental health professional to find out how they are doing and how you can be helpful. If they return to school and have struggled academically previously, ask your student to sign a FERPA waiver so you can see end of semester grades online.

5. Maintain hope

It may be hard to see now, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have witnessed stories of hope every day, students with severe mental health problems going on to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. With your work, love, and encouragement, you can help your student move from crisis to recovery.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Directory.

©2021 Marcia Morris, all rights reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

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