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Preparing Teens for College – Tips for Parents

Silver Hill Hospital

Summer vacation is just beginning, but before you know it, it will be time for many teens to start a whole new chapter in their lives and leave home to begin their freshman year of college. A certain amount of stress and anxiety is bound to come with the transition to independence no matter how excited a kid is to leave the nest. That is why, in between trips to Ikea to pick out dorm furniture, parents should spend some time to help them prepare.
Hopefully by now your teen is already becoming more self-sufficient. This summer, give them a little more freedom. This doesn’t mean to relinquish all parenting responsibilities and let them go wild. Instead, take on the role of an advisor. Give your kids the freedom to make their own decisions and you help guide them along the way. Even if you don’t agree 100% with their choices, as long as they aren’t harmful, let them learn from their mistakes.

Basic Preparation

1.    Practice Independence: A major source of stress comes from learning how to manage daily responsibilities on top of school work and a social life. Stop doing things for your kids and teach them how to things on their own like laundry, grocery shopping, managing their money and paying their own bills.

2.    Physicals Exams: Most students are required to have vaccinations, but be sure to get a physical too. Your teen should go to this appointment by themselves so they can begin to take responsibility for their own health.

3.    Personal Health Issues: Before leaving for school, make sure your kids know all of the details about their medical history, including allergies, chronic conditions and the names and dosages for medications. Be sure they have a copy of the health insurance card and a supply of any medications currently being taken.

4.    Importance of Sleep: Many college students will pull an all-nighter at some point, but be sure your teens know just how important sleep is. Anxiety, depression and appetite are all negatively affected by lack of sleep. It’s important to stay rested in order to stay physically and emotionally well and succeed in school.

5.    Arrange for On-Campus Services: If your kids have a physical or mental disorder that requires special care, arrange a meeting with your child and the school to set up services in advance.

6.    Monitor Emotional Distress: Some stress and anxiety is normal, but if you notice signs of depression or out of control anxiety, it’s time to step in. Don’t be afraid to take a stand if you think your child is in distress.

College & Mental Illness

In the movies college is portrayed as nonstop fun and wild parties, but that’s not the case for everyone, especially those with a mental illness. Anxiety and depression are the most common disorders found on college campuses. According to a 2014 American College Health Association survey of over 79,000 college students, about 14% were diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the last year and about 12% were diagnosed or treated for depression. That is over a 10% increase since 2008. Untreated depression can be deadly. Sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, which is why it’s important to watch for any signs of trouble. Late adolescence is also when symptoms of more severe illnesses, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, typically begin to appear.
Everyone has a bad day, but if you observe (in person or on the phone) prolonged periods of sadness or other symptoms of depression in your teen, it’s time to intervene. 

Snapshot of the Mental Health of U.S. College Students
At any point in the last 12 months:

  • 46% of students felt hopeless
  • 86% of students felt overwhelmed
  • 59% of students felt very lonely
  • 62% of students felt very sad
  • 33% of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function
  • 37% of students felt overwhelming anger
  • 54% of students had feelings of overwhelming anxiety
  • 8% of students seriously considered suicide and 1% attempted
  • 6% of students intentionally harmed themselves (cutting, burning, etc.)

American College Health Association Survey

These alarming statistics illustrate a population in desperate need of help. If your teen has already been diagnosed with a mental illness before entering college, it’s important to take extra steps to prepare for the transition since stress often triggers or worsens symptoms. Be sure they have access to resources either on or off campus and identify a therapist and/or psychiatrist before a crisis arises.
Often teens think college will offer a clean slate, free of the problems that may have been present in high school. While you may be able to get away from that mean teacher or bully, you can’t escape a mental illness. However, with proper treatment all young people with mental illnesses can succeed and go on to live a fulfilling life just like their peers.

Resources for Parents and Teens

  • Active Minds: A student-led organization on 400+ college campuses that provides programs, education and connections to mental health resources with the goal of reducing the stigma of mental illness
  • American Academy of Pediatrics:Tips for Teens Graduating High School
  • Psychology Today: Preparing Teens for College
    American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry: Transitioning from High School to College with a Psychiatric Illness
    American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry: Managing a Mental Health Condition in College