Navigating the Mental Health Conversation With Your College Student in 2021

Wellness Hut outside B&E on August 18, 2020. Photo by Mark Cornelison | UKphoto

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This interview was originally published in UKNow.

University of Kentucky students are returning to campus ready to embrace the Fall 2021 semester after more than a year of unprecedented challenges.

For new members of the Big Blue Family, there’s still anticipation at the thought of new-found freedom and apprehension when it comes to leaving the familiar behind. The transition to college can be emotionally challenging as life away from home, friends and the predictability of high school becomes reality.

Now, add the stressors that accompany a year that included an on-going public health crisis.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this culture shock of transition to college could have serious consequences. A study by the American Psychological Association found that one in three teens faces a mental health disorder during their freshman year.

Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health — From a Distance

As a parent, it is normal to worry about your child’s well-being. But how do you know when to intervene and lend support? 

Mental health and wellness remain a priority at UK. In an effort to help students and parents adjust during the upcoming semester, UKNow enlisted the help of two experts ⁠— Julie Cerel and Mary Chandler Bolin.

Cerel, a licensed psychologist and professor in the College of Social Work (CoSW), specializes in suicide prevention and directs the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Laboratory in the College of Social Work (CoSW).

Bolin, who is also a licensed psychologist, is the director of the UK Counseling Center (UKCC). Their professional advice on how to navigate tough situations and difficult conversations can be found in the Q&A session below.

UKNow: What role has the COVID-19 pandemic played in the mental health and well-being of college students — are they facing unique challenges?

Cerel: For many students, the uncertainty and social isolation of the pandemic made for a very difficult year. However, for some students, especially with pre-existing mental health issues, the idea that people were looking out for each other more actually lessened their stress. Some people with a history of suicide attempts even told us that the pandemic helped them understand that they have dealt with their worst times and can thrive in an uncertain world. It is important not to assume that these changes lead to worst-case outcomes for everyone but to ask questions about how current conditions impact your student.

UKNow: How can parents help prepare their student to return to a social setting — after more than a year of virtual learning?

Bolin: Many students who are new to the UK family spent the past academic year learning virtually. It will definitely be a change to head back into the classroom. I encourage parents to ask your student if they are nervous about this transition and why. Ask them what they are excited about. And lastly, help them create a plan — realizing it takes more mental and physical effort to make it into a classroom than to a Zoom meeting.

UKNow: What advice do you have for parents who are worried about their child’s health and well-being?

Cerel: Even before the pandemic, sending a child to college often led to worries about student health and well-being. Now, after an uncertain year and a half, many parents are even more worried. It is important to remember that your child’s accomplishments have led them to college. As a parent, it is okay to worry and help your child plan for this new phase in their life — especially related to ensuring they are doing their best emotionally. This might be by establishing care at the UKCC during K Week if they have existing needs or seeking referrals for more long-term treatment options. If your anxiety about this is getting in the way, it is important for you to seek care for yourself as you are also going through a major life transition after living through a pandemic.

UKNow: It seems as if college students today are more stressed than previous generations. Why is that?

Cerel: For many years, college students reported symptoms of depression at higher rates than anxiety, but that has reversed in the last 5-10 years. Now, increased anxiety is linked to uncertainties about the spread of COVID-19 and the potential impact on academics, employment and significant others. Also, many families across the Commonwealth have lost loved ones to COVID or other causes and did not have the space to grieve and receive support from their communities.

Additionally, national and international concerns around racial and social injustice increase stress — particularly among individuals who are members of communities experiencing the most harm.

Particularly for students, the daily experience of stress may lead to fatigue, which impairs their healthy function in academic and interpersonal environments. And the typical ways students might burn off stress — participating in extracurricular activities and spending time in close physical contact with friends — were not options last year. This year, the plan is for everything to go back to normal from athletic events to in-person classes, and a college experience much more similar to what we experienced pre-COVID-19. However, there will be a need for students to be prepared for changes based on variants in local cases and vaccination status. This uncertainty can be difficult and requires a lot of flexibility around expectations.

UKNow: What are the indicators that a student may be dealing with anxiety and/or depression?

Bolin: Be aware of any behavioral changes ⁠— withdrawing, skipping classes or other activities, and increased use of alcohol and/or other drugs. Students often self-medicate in an effort to feel less distress in the short-term. Also, be on the lookout for significantly increased or decreased communication with loved ones.

UKNow: How can parents best help their college-age children cope with mental health challenges?

Bolin: It’s important to listen and recognize that your student’s distress may overwhelm existing coping strategies and encourage them to use the many resources available at UK and in the local community.

UKCC provides a range of options for students — because so many students found secure Zoom teletherapy to be an easier way to get mental health treatment, that option will continue to be available. For those who feel that in-person treatment is best for them, that option will be available, too.

Both in-person and virtual workshops will be offered to support student self-care, and informal brief consultation is available Monday-Friday in daily “Let’s Talk” opportunities (some in-person and some via Zoom}. Phone consultation is available at the UKCC main number, 859-257-8701, even when the office is not open for appointments. In addition to the UKCC, University Health Service (UHS) clinicians in Behavioral Health can also be a key resource, particularly if medications are considered.

Some students will have acute and/or chronic mental health treatment needs beyond the scope of UKCC services, and a clinical care coordinator may assist with resources.

UKNow: How important is it for students to have a reliable support system?

Bolin: Social support can help people thrive, and it often comes from different people in our lives. This includes emotional support and tangible support, such as help managing finances, doing laundry or cooking meals.

At UK, support can range from peers and faculty, academic advisors and integrated success coaches, Residence Life professionals and student organizations, to the staff of centers such as the Martin Luther King Center, the Office of LGBTQ* ResourcesStudent Support ServicesThe Study or the Center for Academic Resources and Enrichment Services (CARES). 

UKNow: What role should parents play in this support system?

Cerel: For parents, it is often difficult to know when to respond quickly, or to allow their child to learn to help themselves. We advocate that unless the situation is a true emergency, help your child work through the issue themselves but understand that this might not “fix” things as quickly as you could do yourself. By allowing your child to take the lead, you are helping them learn skills they will use for the rest of their adult lives:

  • Help the student define/narrow the concern.
  • Generate options for a solution.
  • Be a sounding-board by listening and validating feelings.
  • Support the student in planning how to implement the chosen option.
  • Follow-up to see how the plan turned out.

UKNow: An immediate reaction might be to intervene if a student is having trouble academically or with a roommate. Can that be more hurtful than helpful?

Bolin: It’s recommended that parents encourage students to make direct contact with the appropriate authority — the faculty member, academic advisor or resident advisor. While self-advocating may be initially uncomfortable for the student, it’s also a key life skill to begin practicing in the safe environment of college.

UKNow: What advice would you give to parents about maintaining balance?

Bolin: It’s important to find a balance between challenge and support. Because it’s unfamiliar to do some life tasks for themselves, students may default to “I can’t.” Parents can support, encourage and reward the student’s efforts to resolve issues and take action on their own — even if the outcome isn’t perfect. College students gain confidence and independence when supported to develop their own decision-making skills. And parents will experience less concern about their adult children as their student continues to implement life skills on their own. 

However, if parents become aware that their student is not functioning well on a daily basis, and the student is not accessing available support resources, parents may contact the UK Residence Life staff for a welfare check on students living on campus. Additionally, parents can contact the Center for Support and Intervention (CSI) with non-emergent reports.

UKNow: What advice would you give to parents who have concerns about a long wait for mental health services at UK? How can their child get seen if they are in a crisis or how can they help lend support?

Cerel: A mental health “crisis” typically involves a suicidal plan, plan to harm another person, recent sexual or physical assault or stalking, grief over a recent death, hallucinations or a medical emergency. Students who indicate those experiences will be provided an initial consultation at the UKCC as soon as possible. As noted above, students can access “Let’s Talk” or afterhours consultation without any requirements.

The use of teletherapy is one of the primary options for many to manage the stress of the pandemic and other concerns. Clients can see their therapist from the comfort of their own home or residence hall. For some, this has developed as an unexpected positive access to therapy.

UKNow: What should a parent do if they are concerned their child might be thinking about suicide?

Cerel: If you are worried about your child, directly ask them if they are thinking about suicide. There is no risk this will put the idea in their head and can often show that you are worried and want to help. Concerns of imminent suicide risk — if the student has indicated they want to die, has a plan and has lethal means available — you will need to alert Residence Life (if the student lives in a UK residence hall) or have someone accompany them to the nearest hospital emergency department. Calling 911 is also an option if someone has a weapon and a plan to end their life.

To reach UK Police directly from a cell phone, dial #UKPD or #8573. If you are concerned about how to get help for someone you care about, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK/8255 or Crisis Text Line 741741. You can also have your student make this call/text to get help for themselves.

For a brief consultation call with the UKCC, call 859-257-8701 and press ‘1’ at the prompt, outside of normal business hours.

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For 85 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has been a leader in social work education. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Like the University, CoSW is an organization that cultivates a diverse academic community characterized by interpersonal fairness and social justice. We are fiercely committed to developing outstanding social work professionals — leaders who will serve individuals, families, and communities through innovative and effective practices that are guided by cultural competency, systematic ethical analysis, and a keen and pragmatic understanding of the human condition.