If you sent a young adult to college this fall, you are well aware that just about nothing is as your student imagined it might be when they first dreamt of heading off to school. In the age of COVID-19, everything from move-in day to classes, dorm life and the social scene is different on campuses across the U.S.
While several universities chose not to bring students on campus, many others decided to open dorms, classrooms and facilities, hoping ample testing and precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus would allow for a safe — albeit unusual — college experience. This means that students face regular COVID-19 testing, mask mandates, sporadic quarantine or isolation, mostly online classes, and very limited opportunities to meet new people, find novel interests and launch their almost-adult lives.
What isn’t different, however, is the fact that the first semester at college and away from home almost always offers challenges, even in the best of times. There are the usual stressors related to more rigorous academics, roommates, new social dynamics and freedoms, loneliness and home sickness. And unfortunately, the anxiety and changes surrounding the present pandemic add a whole new level of concern.
“Having a lot of stress and a dip in mental health during the first semester at college is quite normal,” says Kim Eisenberg, LCSW, lead therapist of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Trauma Recovery Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Even when we’re not in a pandemic, late fall is when college counseling centers typically start to see an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression, but it's amplified right now because of COVID-19 and the related feelings of loneliness and isolation.”
Coping skills for students
According to Eisenberg, it can be easy for college students to become overwhelmed and slip into bad habits. She recommends students focus on coping methods that are effective whether we’re in a pandemic or not:
- Get enough sleep
- Maintain healthy eating habits
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise regularly
- Spend time outdoors in fresh air and sunlight
- Maintain a healthy routine, even if in COVID-19 isolation or quarantine
- Do things you enjoy, both relaxing and rejuvenating activities
- Connect with loved ones, both in person (if allowed) and virtually
- Practice mindfulness
- Limit time spent online
However, along with practicing all of their coping skills, Eisenberg points out that students should also simply give themselves a break. This is an unprecedented and challenging time for everyone.
“Sure, there are kids that are taking the challenges in stride, but it’s important to recognize there are young adults who are really struggling right now,” she says. “Validate and honor the struggle that people are going through and help them to figure out ways to balance that with some positive.”
A shared experience
According to Eisenberg, students need to be reminded that it can be really difficult to find your people in a new environment. On college campuses, the reality is that most students are working through the same struggle.
“Students are exploring identity and carving out autonomy from their family of origin — figuring out who they want to be in the world,” she says. “While students don't get to do that in person the same ways that they did in previous years, there are a lot of really great virtual communities and online events, as well as some opportunities to find safe outdoor and off-campus in-person activities.”
Eisenberg says, “It’s really about finding people with shared interests and shared values.” And college campuses offer more resources than the average adult might have access to. Even during a pandemic with limited services and facilities, most schools still offer open libraries, study rooms, fitness facilities and gathering spots; volunteer opportunities and on-campus jobs; peer support groups; discounts for off-campus activities; and clubs, sports teams and Greek life, with some things taking place online and others in person.
“Your adult autonomous life is the time to seek out whatever it is that tickles your fancy,” Eisenberg says. “With every passing year, the onus is more and more on each of us to find the friends that we want to have in our lives long term — it’s a chance to build a family of choice.”
Signs your student is struggling
Parents must recognize that growing pains during a first year of college are common, but some signs may indicate that your student needs help. “First and foremost, if someone is sharing thoughts about wanting to end their life, wishing not be here or feeling like a burden to others, those are big red flags,” Eisenberg says.
Other signs of distress to watch for:
- Sudden changes in sleep habits — not sleeping very much or sleeping too much
- Loss of appetite and noticeable weight loss
- Increased eating — bingeing or eating continually to self-soothe — and unhealthy weight gain
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Increased isolation
- Inability to do day-to-day things, from getting out of bed and maintaining hygiene to being able to perform academically or on the job
- Creating conflict in relationships
- Increase in substance use
“Social use of alcohol as well as other intoxicants is developmentally common for a lot of college students, so use in and of itself is not inherently problematic,” Eisenberg says. “What we really want to be on the lookout for is bingeing use and use that is out of control and creating negative consequences, such as missing school or work, or driving while impaired.”
If you feel the need to intervene, Eisenberg recommends coming from a place of support and empathy. While their brains are still developing, college students are legally adults and a nonjudgmental stance is going to go a lot further toward reaching the ultimate goal of supporting them through a tough time.
“Trying to crack down on them in the same way that you might ground a high school student does not usually fly with young adults in college,” she says. “So coming at it from a place of being concerned about their health and well-being and wanting to help them get the support they need, as opposed to being punitive, really is the way to approach these sorts of things.”
Eisenberg advises parents to watch and listen for signs of struggle and requests for help, even if they aren’t always direct or clear. She suggests parents give students options, rather than make decisions for them, such as proposing they stay at school with some additional supports in place, or take a semester off and go home for a little bit, regroup and figure out what needs to be done to be able to go back and be successful at a later date. The goal is to neither ignore nor overly pressure them, but rather to partner with them to find solutions.
“If your college student is really struggling and they're not already connected to mental health care, this is a time when they can benefit from some very tangible parental support,” Eisenberg says. “It can be very difficult to navigate health care systems for the first time, and when someone is struggling with depression and anxiety, just making phone calls or sending emails can be really daunting. Helping your college student get professional help is encouraged, as long as they are on board.”
Parents and students can talk to their primary care doctor at home to figure out first steps, and college counseling or health centers can be great resources for treatment or referral to off-campus mental health care providers. If your student is in crisis, seek emergency care by contacting campus security, 911 or the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.