Shane G. Owens, PhD, ABPP, is an authority on college mental health practice and policy, including college readiness and behavioral risk management. As a college administrator and in private practice, he works primarily with adolescents and emerging adults. He is a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist.
College is typically a challenging experience with some expected highs and lows. For some it is also the time during which common mental health problems start. Because of this, you have to talk to your kid about mental health before school starts.
This conversation must include these topics:
1. A frank discussion of your family’s medical and mental health history.
It’s almost certain that you have completed a family health history form by now. Many forms leave out specific questions about mental health. Some families do not answer those questions because those conditions seem private or irrelevant.
They are neither.
It is vital for your kid to have full knowledge of your family’s medical history — including mental health. Family history affects the likelihood your kid will deal with mental health problems during or after college. It is as important for him to know that Grandpa Phil was depressed as it is to know that Aunt Maggie died of heart failure.
This talk may be hard to have. Rest assured: Any kid who is truly ready for college is also ready to hear what you have to say. And talking frankly about your family’s issues will help him to discuss his mental health if the time comes.
This crucial part of the mental health discussion will set the stage for clear, open, and supportive communication about these and other tough issues.
2. Who to talk to about not feeling well.
Many, but not all, campuses have mental health services available. Your kid should know the contact information for those services as well as he knows the number for campus security or the best (cheapest) 24-hour pizza delivery place. You should know that number, too.
If there are only off-campus services, both of you should know how to reach several of those.
3. You are there to listen non-judgmentally and openly about thoughts and feelings.
First, prepare yourself for that to be true.
Then, let your kid know that this new way of life will not diminish how much you care about him. Remind him of times you were there for him as he dealt with difficult thoughts and feelings. Reassure him your support will not falter.
Most kids will not deal with serious mental health problems. Regardless, your kid’s experience will be enriched by knowing how to get effective help.