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The van is packed and there is a sense of excitement, anxiety, hope, fear, and exhilaration. You, as a parent, cannot help feeling nervous because you dropped your daughter off at college. Your sense of pride overwhelms you, but so does your fear. This is the first time your daughter has been out in the world without you.
You start dealing with your emotions and look forward to the weekend visits.
Within a few weeks of being away, you start to notice changes in your once fun-loving, peppy, energetic daughter. She now comes home on the weekends, stays in her room, sleeping the days away, appears to have picked up some weight, and she is not hanging out with her best friends anymore.
Now, your apprehension has been replaced with feelings of concern and worry! What do you do?
The first step is to talk with your child about the changes you have noticed with her. Let her know that you love her and do not judge her. Also, make her feel safe to tell you anything that may have happened or how she is feeling.
Directly ask your child if she has been in any unsafe or abusive situations. Once you have ruled out any safety concerns, you can start to figure out if your daughter is suffering from depression. Here are causes of depression in college students, symptoms to watch out for, plus additional steps to take if you're concerned that your college student is depressed.
Causes of Depression in College Students
Your child could be depressed for different reasons, so having context is helpful for informing your next steps in seeking treatment. Here are some common causes of depression in college students:
- Academic performance: If your child excelled academically in high school, for example, but feels like they're falling behind in college, it can lead to overwhelm and depression. Many also face a fear of failure, regardless of their academic performance in high school.
- Changes in environment (homesick): Homesickness is often expected to a certain extent, but when it gets overwhelming, it can lead to depression.
- Lack of friendships: Social adjustment is tricky for almost everyone, since building new friendships and dealing with interpersonal conflicts in new relationships can be difficult in college. Social challenges can include making friends, managing difficult roommates, and navigating romantic relationships that can at times be shorter-lived.
- Sexuality: College can open up big life questions around sexuality – including when and whether to have sex, topics about sex, and figuring out preferences.
- Use of drugs or alcohol: Many college students attend parties – which, while fun, can also lead to overextending oneself and having difficulty with balance.
- Financial constraints: Money (or lack thereof) can be a stressor for college students, who are now tasked with exploring the world on their own.
- Excessive use of social media or technology: Connecting online, rather than offline, may actually isolate your child and accelerate their depression.
Signs Your College Student is Depressed
- Mood changes: Unpredictable highs and lows in quick succession.
- Energy level decreased: Feeling sluggish, with or without adequate sleep
- Sleep changes: More sleep than usual, or problems falling or staying asleep
- Weight changes: Gaining or losing more weight than is healthy
- Lack of interest in activities: Dropping out of prior commitments, including hobbies and seeing others
- Decreased socialization: Not interested in seeing friends, or canceling plans due to mood or anxiety
- Sadness: Feeling extreme lows and emptiness
- Irritability: Getting annoyed and snapping easily
- Feelings of guilt: Heavy guilt, whether warranted or not
- Thoughts or threats of suicide: Talking about dying, threatening to commit suicide
If you feel your college student may be struggling with depression, ask if she is feeling suicidal. If she says yes, then immediately take her to the closest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255.
Warning Signs of Suicide
- Talking about dying, or wanting to die
- Rage or anger
- Sleeping much more than usual
- Mood swings
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol
- Giving personal items away
- Creating a plan to kill oneself
If she states that she does not feel suicidal then your next step is to seek help immediately for her depression. You need to immediately start laying the groundwork of your daughter’s support system. This will include people at home, and at school.
Where to look for help for your college student
If you want to go through insurance, check coverage options
If your daughter is covered by insurance, you can call your insurance company for a referral to a psychiatrist and a therapist.
Consider counseling services on, or near, campus
You can check out counseling centers near her school, near your home, or the counseling center on campus.
If your child travels between home and campus, try online counseling
If she travels back and forth from college it may be best to seek out a therapist and psychiatrist who see clients online.
Licensure boards typically require therapists to see clients within the same state as your residence, so if you live in a different state from the college, you may be able to locate a therapist that has a license in both the college state and the residential state. This will be useful if she needs extra support, regardless of where she is located at that moment.
Show support from all ends for your child
The assistance of a therapist will help your daughter learn about her depression, assist her when she feels overwhelmed, teach her coping skills, help her monitor the effects of medications, provide her much-needed support, and will assist in a quicker recovery time.
But those changes won't happen overnight – and in the meantime, she may need some help implementing the advice and lifestyle alterations she learns from therapy. Here's how you can show support in a loving way:
Decide together if you will also communicate with her provider
Since your child is now over the age of 18, HIPAA laws will prevent you from communicating with a therapist or a psychiatrist without her consent. You may want to discuss this with your daughter and what she wants in terms of your participation. This should be addressed upon the initial intake with the appropriate forms.
Offer to attend the appointment too, or drive your child there
If your child is seeing a therapist in-person (as opposed to online), you can show support by asking if you can attend the appointments with her (or, at the very least, drive her there). This will offer her extra support for her during this time, as well as assist her in navigating the initial process.
Provide help with medication management, if applicable
If medication is appropriate there will be scheduled visits to adjust medications, so offer to help keep her organized. It might help to add the follow-up appointments to your own calendar, so you know what to expect and when.
Set up a safety plan
Regardless of how involved in the actual appointments she allows you to be, one of the most important things to do is set up a safety plan for times where your daughter feels like she is getting worse or suicidal.
This plan should include her newly established support group to include her psychiatrist, therapist, roommate, or college friends she spends the most time with, and the on-campus counseling center.
Depression does not have to interfere with your child's dreams. Keeping her as independent as possible but involved with the family is the key to allowing her to build a mentally strong and healthy life.