Dr. Stan Kutcher knows to expect many phone calls in the first few weeks of the academic year. The holder of the Sun Life Financial Chair in adolescent mental health at Halifax’s Dalhousie University says the calls come from parents of freshmen worried about their children’s mental health as they embark on academic life. “So many parents expect things to go badly,” says Kutcher. “Yet for most kids, this will be a positive, exciting experience. Stress helps us learn new things.”
For the vast majority of first-year students, their frosh experience will ultimately be a good one. Many may encounter homesickness, a sense of isolation, uncertainty about their studies or finances and the challenges of socializing, studying and working -- all normal reactions, says Kutcher. But he warns students that failing to go to class, skipping opportunities to meet others, not completing schoolwork and abusing alcohol and drugs can lead to mental health problems that can undermine studies. The key is balance between school work and personal life, says Kutcher. “And to get enough sleep.”
Staying in touch with your freshman
Troubleshooting before school starts is instrumental in staving off any issues in first year, says Jennifer Hamilton, executive director of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.
“Parents and students should sit down in the summer — don’t do this the day before you’re packing for college.” Her advice:
- Make a list: Freshmen should make a list of things they’re worried about, whether it’s managing money, a fear they won’t meet friends or a concern about getting good marks.
- Talk: Parents should have an open conversation addressing these concerns. They should tackle each potential issue with comments such as, “How do you feel we should act if that happens?”
- Get support: Parents and students should make themselves familiar with support services on campus, such as student services, financial aid services, peer support groups and mental health experts -- if the need arises.
- Don’t wait: Students and their parents should try to have an open dialogue about challenges they’re facing as they come up. Parents should work questions about mental health concerns into a conversation with their children, rather than waiting for them to mention any issues. Ask questions such as: “Are you feeling upset about missing your friends?”
- Think small: Students should break their campus down into smaller chunks to feel less lost in the crowd, joining smaller colleges at a large university or social groups such as the college newspaper, choirs, sports groups or clubs.
- Join in: Freshmen should engage in the academic community. Even if students live off campus, joining various groups and attending activities on campus can help them feel connected.
Watch for clues to stress
Sometimes even the best-adjusted students can begin to suffer the effects of stress. The key is to identify and address these as soon as possible before they become a more serious health disorder such as anxiety or depression.
Dr. Joti Samra, a Vancouver-based registered psychologist and host of Oprah Winfrey Network's “Million Dollar Neighbourhood,” says parents need to monitor changes in their son or daughter’s personality for clues to a mental health problem. “A day or two of being down is usual,” she says. “A couple of weeks or longer, more often than not, may signal an issue.”
Signs of a possible problem can include:
- Changes in personality, such as irritability, more frequent emotional outbursts, anger, extreme sadness, despondency, talk of suicide or self-harming
- Changes to eating or personal hygiene habits, such as a lack of grooming or a sudden fixation on body image
- A failure to engage socially
- An inability to fulfill academic duties
- Abuse of alcohol or drugs, such as binge drinking
If you spot any of these symptoms, seek help immediately to get a stressed-out student’s life back on track.
Three things you can do to cope with first-year stress
- Parents: Bring up mental health concerns when talking with your children.
- Students: Take care of yourself – get enough rest, proper nutrition and exercise.
- Parents: Appraise your children’s coping strategies realistically and set up safety nets such as peer support or counselling.