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College Students and Mental Wellness

Supporting Your Child During Semester Break

Going to college looks very different this year – a far cry from the way teens expected it to look when they started applying to schools. Whether your child went away to college and is living in a dorm, is at home and going to school locally, or is taking online classes, almost everyone is dealing with the gap between expectations for college life and the reality of 2020. 

The transition from home life to college life can be tumultuous, even without the disruption and confusion of a pandemic. COVID-19 has had a negative impact on many of us, and mental health counselors are seeing an increased need for mental health support for college students. 

For most, college is a time of freedom and independence. Students look forward to living with peers instead of parents and participating in large group activities, whether playing sports, joining clubs, or attending football games. Without these typical college experiences, students can feel isolated and unsure about how to structure their time. 

The pandemic’s economic repercussions mean that some students who had planned to go away to school are now staying home. Many jobs that college students might have held before the pandemic to help pay for school expenses have dried up, adding to their stress.

If your child is struggling, he or she is not alone. According to a survey of undergraduate and graduate students at Texas A&M published in September, a majority reported that their anxiety and depression had increased. Since school was disrupted in mid-March, 18 percent of the students reported an increase in suicidal thoughts. Distressingly, less than half felt equipped to cope with their current situation. 

How can we help college-age students cope and build resilience? Start with really listening. Sometimes we gloss over our children’s disappointments in an effort to cheer them up, or we immediately shift into problem-solving mode. Try listening first, and then reflecting back what they expressed to see if you really understand.

Help your child think through how he can maintain routines, get outside regularly, and keep up with friends and family safely. Talk to her about what she is doing to give herself a sense of purpose if she’s feeling adrift. Is volunteering
an option? 

With the holidays almost here, consider what important traditions you can keep. Extended family gatherings may not be possible, but you can have your family’s favorite foods, game nights, or other traditions that may mean more now to your children than they previously realized.

Despite your best efforts to be supportive, we are in extraordinary times, and your child may need professional help to make it through this transition in the healthiest way possible. The following symptoms mean it’s time to encourage them to see a counselor:

• Lack of interest in things they once enjoyed

• Change in socialization (withdrawing)

• Change in sleeping pattern (too much or too little)

• Irritability or change in mood

Colleges have student counseling centers that can be a helpful and free resource. Because of the increase in demand, some, like Radford University and Virginia Tech, are offering more virtual group counseling options. This can be an effective way for students to gain access to a counselor and learn they are not alone.

Many counselors have started using telehealth during the pandemic. Seeing a therapist virtually can be helpful if transportation off-campus is a barrier or if your child wants to start seeing a counselor at home and continue therapy when back at school. Keep in mind that unless a counselor is licensed in multiple states, both the client and the counselor must be in the same state when services are provided. Check with your insurance company to learn more about your mental health benefits.

If your child already had a mental health diagnosis before going to college, it is important to ensure he has adequate support when he goes back to school. If the therapist who sees your child in Richmond is not available to him when he is away at school, use this break between semesters to investigate college counseling options and therapists in that area.

With the right support in place, college students can make it through this difficult time of transition and even thrive.

Emily Olsen
Emily Olsen, LPC, is the clinical supervisor at enCircle, formerly Lutheran Family Services of Virginia. She provides individual counseling to children, teens, and adults, currently through telehealth. She is also the mom of two young children, ages one and four.
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