It is challenging for any parent to watch his or her son or daughter go off to college, but this experience is magnified if a parent has concerns about the mental health and well being of his or her student. Mental health concerns and mental illness often arise or worsen during the college years for several reasons. Students may be faced with increased stress, ready availability of drugs and alcohol, and decreased contact with family and social supports during a time when many individuals are biologically most prone to developing mental illness. The good news is that mental health concerns can be effectively treated using counseling, medication, or a combination of the two.
It is important for you, as a parent, to know what to watch for and what to do if you are concerned about your son or daughter. First, you must strive to establish and maintain open communication with your child. If you notice any behaviors or changes that concern you, openly address these concerns with him or her. Through persistence, you may be best able to help your child. You should also be aware of signs and symptoms of emotional distress.
Symptoms that could indicate the development of mental health concerns:
- A sudden worsening of school performance. Good students who suddenly start ignoring assignments and cutting classes may have problems that can put them at risk of suicide.
- A fixation with death or violence. People may develop an unusual interest in death or violence, expressed through poetry, essays, doodling, or artwork; an obsession with violent movies, video games, and music; or a fascination with weapons.
- Unhealthy peer relationships. Students who do not have friends, or suddenly reject their friends, may be at risk.
- Violent mood swings or a sudden change in personality. Individuals who become sullen, silent, withdrawn or angry, or who engage in acting out behavior may have problems that can lead to suicide.
- Signs of an eating disorder. An eating disorder is a sign that someone needs help. A dramatic change in weight that is not the result of a medically supervised diet may also indicate that something is wrong.
- Difficulty in adjusting to gender identity or sexual orientation. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have a higher incidence of suicide than their heterosexual peers.
- Suddenly increasing use of alcohol or other substances, such as illicit drugs or misuse of prescription medications.
- Depression. The following signs indicate that someone may be depressed:
- Depressed mood, expressions of sadness or hopelessness.
- Lack of enjoyment from previously enjoyed activities or withdrawal from friends and extracurricular activities.
- Changes in appetite or weight loss or gain.
- Changes in sleeping patterns, either sleeping too little or too much.
- A sudden, unexplained decline in enthusiasm and energy.
- Restlessness and agitation.
- Seeming to feel tired all the time, for no apparent reason.
- Lowered self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness or excessive feelings of guilt.
- Indecision, lack of concentration and forgetfulness.
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
The following warning signs indicate that your son or daughter needs intervention:
- Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
- Acting reckless or engaging in risky behaviors
- Feeling trapped
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Anxiety, agitation, being unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
- Dramatic mood changes
- Expressing feelings that life is meaningless or that there is no reason to live
If you witness any of the above warning signs, call for help. You can call Counseling Services at (269) 387-1850 Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. After hours, call (800) 273- TALK (8255). This National Suicide Prevention hotline is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week and is answered locally.
Additionally, the following warning signs indicate that your son or daughter needs immediate intervention:
- Threatening to hurt or kill him or herself, talking about harming him or herself, or announcing that he or she has made a plan to kill him or herself.
- Obtaining a weapon or other items that they could use to hurt themselves (such as prescription medications).
- Talking or writing about suicide or death.
If your child exhibits any of the above warning signs, call 911. If your child has expressed an immediate plan to end her or his life or has access to a gun or other potentially deadly means, do not leave him or her alone; get help immediately. Remove the potentially deadly means from his or her environment, at least temporarily during this crisis.
If your son or daughter states that he or she is depressed or considering suicide, take action. Show your child that you care by discussing your feelings and his or her feelings. While it may feel scary to ask directly about suicide; this will not place the idea in his or her head or increase the chance that he or she will consider suicide. Most likely your child will feel relief that someone has noticed their pain and has expressed concern.
If you are concerned about your son or daughter and believe that he or she needs professional intervention, you should encourage him or her to go to Counseling Services at Sindecuse Health Center. Counseling services are provided free of charge to all actively enrolled students. You can reassure him or her that counseling services are provided confidentially and seeking help is a positive choice for his or her own well-being that may help them reach their personal and educational goals and not a sign of weakness.
If you are interested in obtaining counseling services in the community instead of through the University, please refer to the “Resources Links” link located to the left.
You can also call Counseling Services directly (269) 387-1850 if you are concerned about your student’s mental health.
While Western Michigan University will not generally notify you about your son or daughter’s behavior or emotional health, if your child is 18 years or older, however, you may be notified under the following three circumstances:
- He or she gives the University permission to contact you.
- He or she is deemed to be in imminent danger of harming him/herself or others.
- He or she violates University alcohol or drug policy.
Further reading: The Jed Foundation's Protecting your child’s mental health: What can parents do?