Navigating the Storm and Rough Seas of College

Posted on 08/17/15 02:47:pm

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Are a lot of people telling your college-bound child that they’re “going to make so many new friends in college” or “have the best time of their lives”? While this may be true for many individuals, for many others the transition to college can be a particularly challenging time. In the face of high expectations, these challenges can be surprising and difficult to navigate.

Sue McKenzie, co-director of Rogers InHealth(link is external) says, “We tend to guide people around transitions, moving them to the other side of the transitional period with high expectations. For example, we tell our children that college is going to be a blast and that they’re going to have so many opportunities, but we probably need to have a conversation about how the transition is going to be hard at first.”

Many difficulties emerge for students when they realize their new-found freedom. “The college years are difficult for students to figure out how to make decisions about alcohol as it’s so much more prevalent for them in a college environment. So we need to teach ourselves and our students the skills of dealing with uncertainty.” 

This uncertainty about the shift into college could stem from what McKenzie describes as the “perfect storm” for young adults. She says, “For many of us, when we make a transition, it’s a time of chaos and we need to figure out that storm, which can lead to problems.”

Besides being a time of increased drug and alcohol accessibility and decreased parental restrictions, “The college years are also a time period in which mental illness has an increased likelihood of revealing itself, if it hasn’t already. Students may be experiencing early symptoms at college without that context of family and people who know what’s normal and typical for that person.”

So what can others do to make this stage of life easier? Rachel Leonard, PhD, behavioral activation specialist and clinical supervisor of Rogers’ FOCUS program, says, “One thing that we can is to normalize this transition and acknowledge that this change can be really tough for a lot of people. Have a conversation with your student if you think they may be struggling withdepressionanxiety or even thinking about suicide. Oftentimes, people worry that directly asking about these topics might make them worse, when in fact, it’s actually a really important conversation to have to identify people who may need professional help.”

New roommates, friends and professors aren’t going to be as familiar with your child’s typical behavior as you or their more established relationships may be. For this reason, newer acquaintances may not be as perceptive in spotting problem behaviors that may suggest that your child is having difficulty adjusting to college. 

Dr. Leonard says parents, roommates and friends should watch out for these problem behaviors:

  • Spending too much time in the dorm room
  • Sleeping for excessive amounts of time
  • Playing videogames for excessive amounts of time
  • Getting overly-involved in alcohol or drugs
  • Participating in self-harming activities

“If you see some of these behaviors, have a conversation and suggest that the student seek treatment if these behaviors are getting in the way of that person being able to function,” says Dr. Leonard.

Dr. Leonard also suggests that college students balance of the types of the activities they participate in. Some students who go off to college may be overly perfectionistic and have unrealistic expectations for themselves, spending all of their time studying. On the other hand, some students may over-indulge in the social scene. Dr. Leonard explains that neither of these behaviors allow a person to have a healthy balance of activity, which can lead to problems down the road.

Besides being balanced, it’s important that students use college as a time for self-discovery. “Students should be doing the things that really matter to them, not just the things that matter to their parents or to other people. Students need to identify their values and make sure their college major and activities align with their own values so that they can have a more fulfilling life.”

FOCUS, a residential treatment program available at Rogers, “treats young adults suffering from depression and anxiety, which often emerges during these transitions into college or the work force and interferes with their ability to make that successful transition. So FOCUS helps young people reduce depression and anxiety by working with them to make changes in the amount and types of activities they complete, learn to face anxiety-provoking situations, address problematic patterns of thinking and learn skills to help reduce distress,” says Dr. Leonard.

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