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Your college student is back home and you want to talk mental health? Keep this mind

Experts say parents need to be aware of the stigma associated with mental health issues when speaking with their children.
Experts say parents need to be aware of the stigma associated with mental health issues when speaking with their children. 

Mental health experts say the holidays provide an opportunity for parents to check in on their children's psychological wellbeing as thousands of college students are back home.

"This is an important time of year because you're going to be spending more time with your kids," Rhonda Randall, UnitedHealthcare's chief medical officer, said.

Having conversations about mental and emotional wellbeing is important as mental distress is on the rise among 18- to 25-year-olds, she said.

UnitedHealthcare's 2023 Mental and Behavioral Health Data Brief found the rate of frequent mental distress more than doubled among this age group between 2011 and 2021, rising from 12% to 24%. The assessment also found young adults experienced an 89% increase in depression diagnoses during their lifetime from 18% to 27% during the same period.

Such distress can include depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and eating disorders, Randall said.

"The positive news in all of this is a lot of that increased demand that we're seeing is for things like managing stressful situations, short term things that are amenable to support and coaching," Randall said.

A careful approach

Taking the right approach is important for parents who are concerned about their college-aged children. They should take the time to ease into the conversations, putting aside any concerns they might have from previous discussions with their child, MetroHealth clinical health psychologist Sheerli Ratner said.

"If you're going to ask questions, definitely don't do that when you're driving back from picking them up at the airport or when they first get in your car or when they come in through the doors at home," Ratner said.

Parents can set aside time to catch up with their child as part of the return trip home — a stop at a restaurant, for example, she said. This way the conversation is more natural and the child is expecting to talk about how they're doing.

Patience and caution are also important in broaching these subjects, as what might seem like depression could just be exhaustion, she said. For instance, a change in sleeping patterns may not mean they're depressed. It could just mean they need to catch up on sleep after finals.

"There is a fine line between what might be exhaustion and just wanting to, quote, 'chill out and relax' in a more safe environment and actually demonstrating depression," Ratner said.

However, there might be an issue that needs to be addressed if, after the first few days, a child does not seem to be acting like themselves, if their sleep patterns still seem different, or if there is a significant change in their weight or appetite, she said.

When approaching their child about their concerns, it is important that parents remain calm and put their child at ease, Ratner said.

“More than whether you ask the right question, it's that you breathe and you relax and you create a safe space for your child to open up,” she said.

Randall agreed, adding that parents need to be aware of the stigma associated with mental health issues when speaking with their children.

“Ask those open-ended questions and see where they go with it, starting by validating what's happening and letting them know that it's okay to have those emotions. You know, we all deal with stress,” she said.

Ratner said these talks also require giving children the time and space to fully respond. She suggests parents should ask “light questions” and be ready for some silence as their children gather their thoughts.

What to do next

Randall and Ratner recommended reaching out to a pediatrician or primary care doctor if the child needs some additional help.

"They have a long standing relationship with you and your family," Randall said. "They're going to be able to get you in quickly in most circumstances and they understand how to navigate this. They deal with it on a daily basis."

She added parents can also talk to a mental health professional at their child's college and use telehealth to give the child a continuous care experience even after they return to school.

The student "can access it no matter where they are," Randall said. "They can access it when they're at home with you. They can access it when they're around, when they're on campus, for example, and have that continuity of care."

Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio and WFPL in Kentucky.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter and producer at Ideastream Public Media, focusing on health coverage across 22 counties in Northeast Ohio.