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How to Talk to Your College Student about Mental Illness

Talk to your college student about mental illness, even if you do not believe your child is displaying any symptoms of a mental illness. Not only do college students often become symptomatic for the first time when they are away at college, but they are also much more likely to die of suicide (Discuss Mental Illness and Suicide with College Students). While we cannot prevent mental illness, we can equip our college students to recognize symptoms of mental illnesses and suicidality and get help for themselves or a friend if necessary. 

What to Discuss about Mental Illness With Your College Student

Following is a list of topics to discuss with your college student concerning mental illness and suicide:

  1. How to recognize the symptoms of depression, mania, or psychosis in yourself or someone else. Often, families may not be aware of a student’s existing mental illness. College students need to be versed in the symptoms of mental illness so that they can get the help they need when and if it is necessary (What are the Symptoms of Mental Illness?). Symptoms may not present themselves for several years into the college experience. College students need to be versed in the symptoms of mental illness so that they can get the help they need when and if it is necessary. Also, they might just be able to help a friend or roommate suffering from symptoms of a mental illness if they are educated.
  2. How lifestyle choices can exacerbate or trigger mental illness. Talk about lifestyle choices that may inflame or trigger a mental illness: lack of sleep or irregular sleep, poor diet, stress, and alcohol and drug abuse may all play a factor in mental illness (What Causes Mental Illness? Genetics, Environment, Risk Factors).Talking to your college student about mental illness may seem difficult, but it is necessary. Here's what you need to include in your conversation.
  3. Details of your college student’s personal medical history as well as any history of mental illness in the family. Educate your college-aged students on your family’s mental illness history, like you would discuss diabetes or breast cancer if it ran in your family. If mental illness or addiction run in your family, talk about it openly. Discuss how these things first surfaced, what the warning signs were, and when it became necessary to get help. Suicides and deaths-by-addiction are also crucial to include (How to Help a Suicidal Person).
  4. Prioritizing involvement in a community. Often, in college, kids don’t have the strong community around them that they are used to having at home. Becoming involved in a community creates a place where friendships and belonging can occur, and where people take notice and care for each other. Communities such as clubs, service organizations, sports teams, campus ministry involvement, and even work-study jobs can create a safety net for your college-aged student far from home.
  5. People and places where your college student can go for help if they begin to present symptoms. Often times college-aged students do not feel comfortable calling home to talk about their symptoms that may or not be related to a mental illness. Make certain your student knows where the student help center is on campus, where they can often receive free screening for mental illness and talk to a counselor (Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness). Teach your student how to call your insurance for assistance to find a therapist or psychiatrist if necessary. Give them the tools to get the help they need, even if they are not ready to involve you.

Resources Your College Student May Need

The following resources are available here on HealthyPlace and can be great away-from-home resources for your student:

If your student believes they may be displaying symptoms of a mental illness, they can take the following quizzes:

Your College Student Needs to Know about Mental Health

Making mental illness and suicide something we discuss openly in our families can change the way our kids view these topics. Instead of viewing these subjects as a taboo that they must deal with in secret, our children can grow into adulthood armed with the knowledge that mental illness is like any other illness. They can get help with symptoms that may or may not be due to mental illness long before they become suicidal.

Talk to your college student about mental illness and suicide. Help the next generation treat mental illness the same as any another illness. Then, maybe suicide can become something future generations only read about in their history books.

Why You Must Discuss Mental Health History with Your Kids

For more on discussing mental health with your family, view:

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