October 1, 2022

9 things college mental health counselors wish parents understood

If you’re the parent of a college-aged kid, you know that students today have higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.

Between 2020 and 2021, more than 60% of college students “met criteria for one or more mental health problems, a nearly 50% increase from 2013,” found a June study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

“The pandemic has made everything worse,” Marcus Hotaling, a licensed psychologist and president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, tells TODAY Parents.

Parents can be a significant resource for college students, even from afar. We asked campus counselors what they’d really like parents to know.

1. College counseling centers won’t meet the needs of all students

Mental health services at college can’t always meet the demand. According to Brett E. Scofield, Ph.D., the associate director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Service at Penn State University, the demand for college counseling services has been growing for decades.

“The problem is that there was not an equivalent focus on building treatment capacity to accommodate the increasing demand,” he tells TODAY Parents.

Scofield, who is also the executive director at The Center for Collegiate Mental Health, encourages parents to investigate for themselves just what mental health services are available.

Scofield suggests calling your kid’s college counseling center before school starts to ask about its “scope of services.” For example: What mental health issues does the center address? What specific services are provided? And if the center can’t meet the needs of your child, can they make a referral to an outside provider?

Related story: Teens are struggling with mental health. Here’s how to help them

2. Don’t assume your kid doesn’t want to talk to you

Parents often believe that kids stop caring about their opinions once they’re in college. Not true.

“Students may say they don’t care about their parents’ influence, but they generally still want reassurance from and a connection to their families,” says Larry Marks, a licensed psychologist at the University of Central Florida’s Counseling & Psychological Services,.

“Think of yourself as a coach or consultant,” he says. “In that mindset, you can be supportive, listen and advise but also help kids make their own choices and navigate their problems.”

So instead of saying, “Just come home and we’ll work it out,” you might say, “Let’s talk it through,” Marks suggests.

3. But your kid might not call (and it’s OK)

Even the healthiest parent-child relationships need structure during college, points out Aesha L. Uqdah, a clinical psychologist and director of the counseling center at University of Louisville. So how often will you text, email or talk on the phone?

“It wouldn’t hurt to say something like, ‘Right now, we see each other every day — how often should we talk when you’re gone?'” Uqdah tells TODAY Parents.

And don’t be offended if that plan falls apart after your child leaves for college.

“No news isn’t necessarily bad news,” she says, adding that radio silence can mean a student is meeting friends or exploring new opportunities.

But some kids have the opposite challenge.

“First-generation college students or students with families who live far away often feel torn or helpless when there’s a disruption at home,” Katherine Wolfe-Lyga, director of the Counseling Services Center at SUNY College at Oswego, tells TODAY Parents. “So have explicit conversations with your student — ‘You don’t need to come home if your younger sibling is in trouble’ — around expectations.”

Related story: Screening for anxiety and depression may be useful for kids as young as 12

4. Remember what college was like

“College has an academic mission but kids spend more time outside the classroom than inside it,” says Hotaling. “The college experience is about identity, conflict, personal development and relationship building, which is its own educational model.”

College administrators dole out consequences if students break the rules, but mental health counselors use a “risk-reduction model” to openly talk through problems.

So if your underage student is caught drinking, a visit with a mental health counselor might involve exploring why they did it and how they can maintain safe behavior, rather than discipline.

5. Empower kids to advocate for themselves

If you’re still making doctor or dentist appointments for your college-aged kid, let them take over.

According to Wolfe-Lyga, most students voluntarily seek out college counseling. But if your kid is embarrassed or ill-equipped to do that, check whether their school offers a low-key resource called “Let’s Talk,” a Cornell University initiative that’s been implemented at some colleges.

The confidential drop-in service is first-come, first-serve and allows kids with non-urgent problems — for instance, those who are curious about counseling or who have a specific problem to hash out — to meet with a counselor. However, the university emphasizes that “Let’s Talk” isn’t actually mental health treatment.

At SUNY, Let’s Talk counselors sit in the dining hall or the library for a three-hour block and wait for students to pop in to discuss things like an argument with friends or a failed test,” says Wolfe-Lyga. “We try to publicize this during orientation but it’s easily overlooked.”

Related story: What to know before using an app to manage your mental health

6. Offer sideline support

Many colleges and universities have “parent relations” offices for families to support their students, says Steve Sprinkle, a licensed psychologist and the former director of the Counseling Center at the University of San Diego.

“You can call if your child is having academic or behavioral problems and these offices have resources,” Sprinkle tells TODAY Parents.

Sprinkle says that ideally, students would know if their parents call, but there is usually an option to call anonymously.

7. You may grow closer to your kid during college

“I regularly hear students say, ‘Since I’ve been in college, I get along better with my parents’ — especially if there was conflict in high school,” notes Marks. “Having some physical distance and (being able) to communicate on students’ terms has helped.

“So if parents feel disconnected to kids, there’s hope that things can get better.”

8. Struggle is inevitable

“In many cases, struggle is OK and sometimes necessary,” notes David Walden, a staff psychologist and director of the Counseling Center at Hamilton College. “We love our kids deeply so we want to remove their struggle and pain, especially when we see potential pitfalls and consequences. But struggling is how they learn.”

Consider this metaphor. “Kids don’t learn to walk by their parents walking for them; they learn by controlling their own fall,” Walden says. “How they adapt to failure helps them learn and move forward.”

9. Colleges are taking mental health seriously

“Before 2000, mental health was more stigmatized, so college counseling centers were a bit sleepy,” observes Sprinkle, adding that campus tours rarely mentioned mental health services.

Sprinkle says confessional-style talk shows and celebrity examples (Kristen Bell credits couples therapy for her happy marriage to Dax Shepard; Jessica Alba said she attended therapy with her teen daughter to improve their communication) contribute to today’s mental health discourse.

“In 1990, if I ran across one of my students, they would turn red and not make eye contact,” he explains. “Today, a student might say, ‘Hey Dr. Sprinkle!’ and introduce me to his roommate as his mental health counselor.”

Related story: Doctor hopes photo breaks ‘rampant stigma’ of physicians seeking help for mental health

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