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Signs Your College Student Is Struggling with Mental Health Issues

These days, a lot of college students struggle with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. In fact, about one in three young adults experience behavioral health problems. If your college student lives away from home, it can be challenging to spot the signs of mental illnesses and figure out how you can help. 

The first step is to simply be aware that the transitional years of early adulthood can make people vulnerable to mental illness. Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ, pointed out how the college years include multiple academic, social and personal changes in a student’s life that can trigger mental health issues:

  • They may transition from the home to the dorm to independent living.
  • They take on more financial responsibility and may feel stressed from the burden of student loans.
  • They may not have consistent, readily available support from family and friends.
  • They are expected to learn more independently.
  • They feel pressure to complete their coursework.
  • They may start a new job and forge new relationships.

“All these changes significantly impact the developing brain,” Dr. Dannaram said.

It’s crucial to spot signs early

Often, chronic, enduring mental illnesses start during the college years. Early adulthood may be the time when people are diagnosed with:

  • Adjustment reaction
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse issues

But mental illness typically progresses over time, with clear signs and symptoms. So, identifying problems early can help people work on preventive strategies. “Early diagnosis and treatment significantly affect the course and outcome of severe mental illnesses,” Dr. Dannaram said. “Early intervention and management help prevent future relapses and functional impairment.”

These questions can help you spot signs of mental health problems

Supportive, empathetic conversations with your college student can help you identify concerns. You may want to connect over video instead of phone or text so you can make eye contact and evaluate your student’s appearance and body language. You can ask:

  • How is your transition to the college routine going?
  • How are you dealing with new people, the environment and your responsibilities?
  • How are you managing your finances?
  • How are you handling your job?
  • Changes can be stressful—how are you coping?
  • How is your self-care? Are you sleeping enough, eating well, exercising and finding time to relax?

    Watch for changes in grades, especially combined with a loss of self-esteem. Those changes could mark stress or the beginning of a mental illness. 

While changes in your college student can be harder to see from a distance, pay attention to these signs of possible mental illness: 

  • Sleeping less or more or sleeping in the daytime
  • Irritability, sadness or anxiety
  • Not showing interest in prior activities
  • Not finding pleasure in things that were enjoyable in the past
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight changes

If you’re worried, what should you do?

If you think your college student may have mental health problems, share your concerns with them. They may be concerned themselves. You can encourage them to connect with college counselors and screening services for advice and care. Mental health professionals have a lot of experience diagnosing and treating mental illnesses in college students.

Depending on the diagnosis, your college student may need to make behavioral changes, seek counseling or take medication. You can help your student make appointments and fill prescriptions, especially if they are seeking care far from home or in another state—they may feel overwhelmed and anxious about reaching out on their own.

If you feel mental illness may significantly impact your college student’s grades, you may want to purchase tuition insurance. That way, if they need to withdraw from classes until their illness is well-managed, your family won’t suffer a significant financial hit. 

The bottom line

Mental health problems are common among college students, and they can be challenging for parents to spot from a distance. But talking to your student nonjudgmentally and watching for signs of problems can help. If you’re worried, you can encourage your child to talk with on-campus behavioral health counselors. To discuss your concerns, learn more about how to spot mental illness and support your college student, reach out to Banner Health

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