Please note that I am not and never have been a mental health professional. I have been through university with a mental illness and have done a little research. I have children but they have not been through university.
1. Understand the challenges faced by students
Saddled with debt; likely to suffer from stress; under pressure to complete their course and get the qualification they need; living unsustainable and damaging lifestyles that may lead to alcoholism or drug addiction; struggling with abusive or failed relationships; trying to understand their mental health difficulties; coping with the realisation that they are not the top of the class anymore, not such a star on the sports field, not as perfect as they thought; vulnerable to anxiety or eating disorders; dealing with being independent, and experiencing some intense life lessons for the first time: student life is fraught with potential difficulties.
2. Choose the right university
Although this may be dependent upon how many offers your child has to choose from, (and on how much influence you have), choosing the right university has to be done wisely.
You might want to consider things like choosing a university that is close enough to home for you to go and visit them regularly: this could be more important than you might imagine.
Consider being influenced by where his/her’s friends are going.
3. Be influenced by the adequacy of the university’s’ mental health services
Check out the website and read up on the university’s mental health support services. Compare it the other university’s that you are choosing from. Give them a ring and talk about it. Understand how many staff the university employs in the area as this may determine the length of the waiting lists for counselling services. Consider choosing a university that has a specialist mental health advisor.
4. Inform the university about pre-existing mental health issues before arriving
This way a plan of help can be made quickly.
There is more help than you might imagine for people who arrive with existing mental health conditions. They can have a mentor or extended deadline dates, for example.
Being open about these things is much better than suffering in silence and these days it shouldn’t affect your application.
5. Spot the signs of depression
Go and visit your family member at university don’t remain stuck on the end of the phone. On the telephone you can’t read facial expressions and you can’t get a feeling for their circumstances, where they live, where they go. Look at their body language: do they look at you in the eyes or do they look away from you? How much do they smile? Is there something different or unusual about them? Do they sound overly pessimistic and negative about everything? How do they dress – have they lost interest in how they look? Have they lost interest in things they used to enjoy? Have they lost or gained weight suddenly?
If your child or relative is withdrawing from you in any way it may be because they are becoming depressed.
Of course, some people are too hard to read, too good at acting. They are the centre of the action, the life and soul of the party, permanently smiling, doing well in their studies and having a great social life. Sometimes making your friends roar with laughter can be a depressing experience: I know because I’ve done it. In that moment you are the only person not laughing and time seems to stand still. Your night out can’t get any better than being the centre of attention and being Mr. popular. So the only way is down.
6. Educate yourself about mental health
Make sure that you understand that depression does not improve simply by ‘jogging around the block’ or ‘going out for a laugh’. The fewer old fashioned clichés that you use the better. Being knowledgeable and understanding will help you give your child the right advice should they choose to ask you for it and will help you yourself cope with his/her’s challenges.
Foster the best relationship that you can with them so that you can get them to open up about their problems. Keeping it to themselves is not going to help them at all. These days there is less stigma around mental health but it does not mean that admitting you have a problem is easy. As a parent, you will likely be one of the first people that they can trust with their problems. Being able to talk to you is vital.
8. Encourage them to give counselling a go
Talking therapies work. Talking can be the most effective way of treating some mental illnesses and often it starts with traditional counselling that may be available on campus. Other therapies can follow through referral from a GP or privately.
9. Take the pressure off them
You can take the pressure off them by telling them that it is ok to feel the way that they do. You can tell them that it is better to quit and come home than to suffer with suicidal thoughts. Once home they can work on getting well enough to move on with the next stage of their lives. Getting a degree isn’t the only stepping stone to a successful career.
10. Be a good listener
A good listener does not have to give advice but must listen sympathetically and intently. Don’t zone out. Try and summarise what you think they are saying occasionally to show them that you are listening and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Whatever you do, don’t start talking about yourself. It’s not about you! Avoid lecturing them or making them conform to your view of the world and how you think they should live. It’s great that they are confiding in you!