College can be a stressful time for young adults as they learn to navigate the world with new responsibilities, new friends and unfamiliar independence.
"The first few months of college in particular can be tough,” says psychiatrist Edward Poa, MD, medical director of the Compass Young Adult Program, which treats adults ages 18 to 30. "For many people it is their first time outside the structure of their home. They have to learn how to manage their own schedules and take care of themselves, shop for themselves and manage a budget. On top of that, they have also lost their usual high school support network. They have to build a new social support network from scratch.”
Students who don't cope well with the challenges of the college environment and new stressors may be more at risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, abusive relationships and depression.
According to a 2004 survey by the American College Health Association, nearly half of all college students report feeling so depressed at some point in time that they have trouble functioning, and 14.9 percent meet the criteria for clinical depression. This marks an increase of 4.6 percent in the number of students who reported having ever been diagnosed with depression over a four-year time span. Young people ages 18 to 25 also have the highest prevalence of binge and heavy drinking, according to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.
Parents can help their children on their journey through college, Dr. Poa says, by being mindful of times when their child is confronting the most change, such as the beginning of their child's first year of college, exam times, sorority or fraternity rush, and, if their child is an athlete, the start of their sport's season.
Being mindful doesn't mean being intrusive in your child's life, emphasizes Dr. Poa. "College is a time when young adults try out new things, so parents shouldn't overreact to every change in their child and check up on him or her constantly, but be aware of drastic change. Continue being a parent. Listen and make yourself available to talk.”
Your child may be struggling in college if:
With support from their parents and friends, most young adults will meet the challenges of college and learn from them. If concerns persist for two weeks to a month, getting a professional opinion is important to getting the student back on track. However, seek immediate help from a mental health professional if your child has suicidal thoughts or profound depression.
Most colleges have counseling centers available to students and these centers are good places for your student to be assessed and treated. For students struggling with substance abuse or addiction, 12-step programs geared to college-aged individuals are often available within the vicinity of a college.
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