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Back on Campus, is Your College Student Having Mental Health Problems? Northwell Health

If your child has returned to college after a year spent learning on a computer, should you be concerned about their mental health? Unless there are obvious signs of problems, the answer is: worried, no; watchful, yes. There are sound reasons to be concerned, ones supported by data.  

For example, one in four young adults say they’ve considered suicide because of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And many students say they feel isolated and alienated from school, their friends, and life in general, according to a July 2021 report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Now get answers from Dr. Richard Catanzaro, Chairman of Psychiatry at Northern Westchester Hospital, about the unique challenges your college student faces on campus, red flags to look for, and the best ways to support their mental health.

Please make the connection between learning virtually during the pandemic and mental health problems for young adults back at college.

Dr. Catanzaro: Human beings are social animals. But we’ve had such a disconnection in our face-to-face interactions over the last year. So we can expect college students to experience a steep increase in social anxiety and anxiety about navigating their new world.

Most people were isolated last year. Why are college students returning to campus especially vulnerable to mental health issues?

Dr. Catanzaro: Young people are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood – a different way of comporting yourself, connecting with others, a whole set of new  responsibilities. During the period of isolation, that development was on hold. Many either stagnated or regressed in learning important new skills.

What precisely was delayed?

Dr. Catanzaro: Besides social skills, progress in emotional self-regulation. When you’re a child living under your parents’ roof, the parent manages many things: “We don’t behave like that here.” “Come on, get yourself out of bed.”  On campus, the young person has to manage their emotions on their own. It’s their job to get up, eat, take a shower, get to class. They haven’t been practicing these new skills. That can lead to anxiety, which can make the student feel ineffective and nonfunctioning, which in turn can lead to depression. A young adult may think: “Everyone else seems to be handling it; something must be wrong with me.” Anxiety could be the first sign of a mental illness.

How does substance abuse play into this scenario?

Dr. Catanzaro: Traditionally, college is the time kids experiment with substances. This year, with many students experiencing higher anxiety levels, substance abuse offers a seeming escape. I fear an uptick in substance use among young adults which, depending on the substance, could also lead to potential overdose.

Please talk about young adults back on campus feeling suicidal.

Dr. Catanzaro:  Even in normal times, the transition to adulthood is hard. There is always an increased risk of suicide in that age group. Now add the increased anxiety of abruptly shifting from being in your room in front of a computer screen for a year to being in a lecture hall with 100 people, on a campus with 20,000 strangers. Abusing substances makes you feel better in the short term, but worse in the long run — more anxious, more empty.

Please distinguish serious mental health issues from emotional problems.

Dr. Catanzaro: The distinction is in terms of functioning. You have a difficult time focusing on your schoolwork versusyou can’t get out of bed, bathe or eat.

How can parents spot mental health problems and take effective action?

Dr. Catanzaro:  This past year we grownups became more savvy about using virtual platforms to stay in touch. Keep using Zoom or FaceTime to see what your child looks like and what their room looks like – both indicators of mental health.

Make yourself available, open to talking. The expectation is that there will be regular communication. Talk openly and frankly with your young adult. Express your concerns. Say: “These are my worries….” Put things in context, saying, “When I went to school, it was stressful. And now it’s stressful for me to get back to work, back on the subway, back in the supermarket.”

Red flags are failing classes, dropping out of school, being unavailable, and sounding or looking terrible.

If your child brushes you off with “Everything’s fine,” ask specific questions: “What did you have for breakfast? “How often do you do laundry?”

Be the parent. Tell your child “I’m paying for your school and your phone. We need to do Zoom once a week.” Find out how often you can see their grades and regularly review them.  

Regarding suicidality: Be mindful about what your student is posting online. Statements like “Remember, I love you” or “If I don’t see you …” or “I don’t know if it’s worth it” can indicate a wish or plan to harm themselves. If you suspect or know your child is having suicidal thoughts or is down in the dumps, ask direct questions: “Are you thinking about ending your life?” Asking the question does not promote suicide; that is a myth. Asking can be a relief and a starting point for treatment. If your child is suicidal, make sure they are not alone and immediately bring them home or go to them. If you sense it’s an emergency – if they say to you, “I can’t control these thoughts” — call 911 right away.

Learn more about our behavioral health program, visit nwh.northwell.edu/psychiatric-services

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