Summer is going by fast – too fast. I wanted to take a moment to reach out to college freshman and their parents and give some tips before the new school year starts.
First of all, congratulations on graduating high school! You worked hard as a family to get here, whether you were the student performing academically and athletically or the parent providing the nurturing home environment. Well done! I am sure by now you have a list of all the classes that you or your child wants to take and most of you have your college roommates matched up. This is also the time to meet with your primary care doctor and your mental health provider for a wellness check. I have patients that I have known since elementary school that are thriving now from a mental health standpoint and who are arranging their follow-up care at their respective universities or with me in October.
Did you know that 70% of all life long mental health challenges start before age 24?
I get calls from many parents after the school year starts with many concerns, such as “My kid is homesick, depressed, anxious, or not focused.” It is important to know that most college campuses have student health centers and even provide a certain amount of no charge counseling. I suggest that you or your parents find out what your university has to offer. Usually the counseling provided is for normal adjustment to college as most colleges are not staffed to deal with higher acuity mental health challenges. Plan ahead for what you or your child needs and research medical referrals ahead of time. Make academic accommodations for your student if they have been receiving an individual education plan in high school before school starts or at freshman orientation week. Be proactive, not reactive for academic support and physical and mental health care.
What should I be aware of when going off to college?
First of all, there is a normal adjustment period that can include feeling lonely, anxious, or disorganized. It is important that you have regular contact with your loved ones and your new college friends. Don’t isolate yourself. It is also important to remember that college is academically more challenging and that the first round of tests might not go as well as you hoped. Learn from this, and consider meeting with your teachers, forming a study group, getting a tutor, or meeting with a counselor.
There are many mind-medicine tools. Nutrition is important for physical and mental health. Follow good common-sense rules for eating. Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. Take a probiotic daily. And remember that sugar does not promote physical and mental wellbeing, so avoid it whenever possible. Get exercise and make sure to have fun, as laughter is the best medicine! Finding your mindfulness activity to keep you in the now reduces stress and improves your mental health. Sleep is crucial, have a regular waking and bed time. It is also a time when use of alcohol, marijuana and other substances happens and can result in abuse and addiction. Be safe, be legal and be aware of the physical and mental health issues that can develop.
If you or your child has a marked change in their personality, is isolating from others, academically failing, or abusing substances, those are signs that a mental health intervention is needed. One of the biggest challenges of getting someone to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist is the self-imposed and societal stigma of getting help.
“This can’t happen to me.” After Columbia University experienced seven suicide completions in a single school year, student mental-health advocate Jacqueline Basulto shared her strategies for coping with her subtle depression with me on my June podcast (transcription). She shared how her depression led to a lack of joy and excitement, even in activities she had previously enjoyed. Support from her parents and her private psychiatrist were instrumental in saving her life.
If you or your child is at an out-of-state university, I recommend use your parental intuition, do not hesitate to check in with them, and visit them right away if you feel that they may need your help and guidance. And ongoing dialogue about their mental, physical, social, and academic lives is crucial for overall well-being.
Tips to remember
- Don’t isolate yourself when you are feeling sad or anxious. Reach out to friends or loved ones. Seek professional help if needed.
- Ask for academic accommodations if you qualify or consider dropping a class if you are too stressed.
- Plan family and friend visits to have something to look forward to.
- Avoid use of alcohol and other non-prescribed drugs.
- Think of your nutrition as “mind medicine”. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Flaxseed is excellent for mental health.
- Take a probiotic daily.
- Exercise regularly.
- Sleep is vital for mental health. Have a regular wake up time and bed time.
- Take breaks from screen time and self regulate your exposure to negative news.
- Practice gratitude and find your mindfulness style.
- Have a mental wellness plan in place before you go to college and reevaluate regularly.
You are ready to go to college with these tips, tools and wellness strategies! I wish the class of 2021 love, prosperity, and good health.