Campus News

Navigating the Mental Health Conversation With Your College Student in 2020

photo of a stressed female college student looking at her laptop.
Photo: Pheelings Media; iStock/Getty Images Plus

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 15, 2020) Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Kentucky students returned to campus ready to embrace a reimagined fall semester.  

For new members of the Big Blue family, the transition to college can be emotionally challenging as life away from home, friends and the predictability of high school becomes reality.

This culture shock can have serious consequences. In fact, a study by the American Psychological Association found that 1 in 3 teens faces a mental health disorder during their freshman year.

Now, add the stressors that accompany a public health crisis, social injustice and a pivotal presidential election. As a result, students have been confronted with unprecedented challenges.

Supporting Your Child's Mental Health — From a Distance

As a parent, you're inevitably going to worry about your child's well-being. But how do you know when to intervene and lend support?  

Mental health and wellness remain a priority at UK. In an effort to help students and parents adjust during the 2020 fall semester, we enlisted the expertise of Julie Cerel and Mary Chandler Bolin.

Cerel, a licensed psychologist and professor in the College of Social Work (CoSW), specializes in suicide prevention and directs the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Laboratory in the CoSW. Bolin, who is also a licensed psychologist, is the director of the UK Counseling Center (UKCC).

Cerel’s and Bolin's professional advice on how to navigate tough situations and difficult conversations can be found in the Q&A session below.

UKNow: It seems as if college students today are more stressed than previous generations. If so, why is that?

Cerel: For many years, college students reported symptoms of depression at higher rates than anxiety, but that has reversed in the last five-10 years. Increased anxiety appears to be linked to uncertainties about the spread of COVID-19 and the potential impact on academics, employment and significant others.

Additionally, national and international concerns around racial and social injustice increase stress — particularly among individuals who are members of communities experiencing the most harm.

Particularly for students, the daily experience of stress may lead to fatigue, which impairs their healthy function in academic and interpersonal environments. And the typical ways students might burn off stress — participating in extracurricular activities and spending time in close physical contact with friends — are no longer options.

UKNow: What are the indicators that a student may be dealing with anxiety and/or depression?

Cerel: Be aware of any behavioral changes ⁠— withdrawing, skipping classes or other activities, an increased use of alcohol and/or other drugs. Students often self-medicate in an effort to feel less distress in the short term. Also, be on the lookout for significantly increased or decreased communication with loved ones.

UKNow: How can parents best help their college-age children cope with mental health challenges?

Bolin: It’s important to listen and recognize that your student’s distress may overwhelm existing coping strategies and encourage them to use the many resources available at UK and in the local community.

UKCC provides a range of options for students — primarily delivered through secure Zoom meetings or by phone this semester.

Using recommended sanitation precautions, UKCC continues to provide scheduled in-person appointments for massage chairs in The Relaxation Room, and virtual workshops have replaced this fall’s usual line-up of “drop-in” services to support student self-care. UKCC also offers informal consultations in daily “Let’s TeleTalk” virtual meetings, groups and individual therapy, and phone consultation when the office is not open for appointments. Additionally, University Health Service (UHS) clinicians in behavioral health can also be a key resource.

Some students will have acute and/or chronic mental health treatment needs beyond the scope of UKCC services, and a clinical care coordinator may assist with resources. If the student has an existing history of symptoms and/or treatment, parents can contact the UKCC to explore community referrals for long-standing needs for individual therapy.  

UKNow: How important is it for students to have a reliable support system?

Bolin: Social support can help people thrive, and it often comes from different people in our lives. This includes emotional support and tangible support, such as help managing finances, doing laundry or cooking meals.

At UK, support can range from peers and faculty, academic advisors and coaches, residence life professionals and student organizations, to the staff of centers such as the Martin Luther King Center, the Office of LGBTQ* ResourcesStudent Support ServicesThe Study or the Center for Academic Resources and Enrichment Services (CARES). 

Some services are still offered in person with physical distancing and mask-wearing, whereas many other supportive resources are now available in virtual formats, by phone or email.

UKNow: What role should parents play in this support system?

Cerel: Unless the situation is a true emergency, try a process that may require some time:

  • Help the student define/narrow the concern.
  • Generate options for a solution.
  • Be a sounding-board by listening and validating feelings.
  • Support the student in planning how to implement the chosen option.
  • Follow up to see how the plan turned out.

UKNow: An immediate reaction might be to intervene if a student is having trouble academically or with a roommate. Can that be more hurtful than helpful?

Bolin: It’s recommended that parents encourage students to make direct contact with the appropriate authority — the faculty member, academic advisor or resident advisor. While self-advocating may be initially uncomfortable for the student, it’s also a key life skill to begin practicing in the safe environment of college.

UKNow: What advice would you give to parents about maintaining balance?

Cerel: It's important to find a balance between challenge and support. Because it’s unfamiliar to do some life tasks for themselves, students may default to "I can’t." Parents can support, encourage and reward the student’s efforts to resolve issues and take action on their own — even if the outcome isn't perfect. College students gain confidence and independence when supported to develop their own decision-making skills. And parents will experience less concern about their adult children as their student continues to implement life skills on their own. 

However, if parents become aware that their student is not functioning well on a daily basis, and the student is not accessing available support resources, parents may contact the UK Residence Life staff for a welfare check on students living on campus. Additionally, parents can contact the Community for Support and Intervention with nonemergent reports.

UKNow: What advice would you give to parents who have concerns about a long wait for mental health services at UK? How can their child get seen if they are in a crisis or how can they help lend support?

Bolin: A mental health “crisis” typically involves a suicidal plan, plan to harm another person, recent sexual or physical assault or stalking, grief over a recent death, hallucinations, or a medical emergency. Students who indicate those experiences will be provided an initial consultation at the UKCC as soon as possible. As noted above, students can access “Let’s TeleTalk” or after hours consultation without any requirements.

The use of telemedicine is one of the primary options for many to manage the stress of the pandemic and other concerns. Clients can see their therapist from the comfort of their own home or residence hall. For some, this has developed as an unexpected positive access to therapy.

Now that the UK Fall 2020 semester has passed the midpoint, it’s not too early to begin planning for the extended winter term — particularly if students will be living outside of Kentucky during those seven weeks. UKCC will be able to provide services to students physically located in Kentucky (under professional licensing requirements), and encourages students outside the state to make advance plans for continuity of care until the spring semester begins.

UKNow: What should a parent do if they are concerned their child might be thinking about suicide?

Cerel: If you are worried about your child, directly ask them if they are thinking about suicide. There is no risk this will put the idea in their head and can often show that you are worried and want to help. Concerns of imminent suicide risk — if the student has indicated they want to die, has a plan, has lethal means available and/or have previously attempted suicide — require a call to 911.

To reach UK Police directly from a cell phone, dial #UKPD or #8573. Non-emergency concerns may be addressed by calling the National Suicide Prevention lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or by texting 741741.

For a brief consultation call with the UKCC, call 859-257-8701. Press "1" at the prompt, outside of normal business hours.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.