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Help Them Cope on Campus

August marks a new beginning for first-year college students and their parents, especially if they’re moving away to other states or cities and out of the comfort of home. With these new beginnings come new challenges.

Anxiety is the No. 1 cause for concern at college counseling services, the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found in a 2018 survey. For some first-year college students, being away from home can be exciting but overwhelming. Balancing school, work, health and a social life can take a toll on their mental health. 

“College is a focal point of stress,” Dr. Andrew Pleener, a psychiatrist located in Windermere, says. “It has been a very critical point in learning how to cope or not cope.” 

Coping with Anxiety 

As students leave the safety net of home, it’s important for them to understand how to handle the anxiety, pressure and stress that college brings. University of Central Florida’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) reported that from 2017 to 2018, 59% of students seeking help had anxiety concerns, followed by depression at 49% and stress at 31%.

Some common signs of mild anxiety include sweaty palms, nervousness and feeling uncomfortable in social settings. Common stress symptoms include headaches, acne and trouble relaxing or falling asleep. 

Dr. Teresa Michaelson, the associate director of outreach and community intervention for CAPS, emphasizes the need for students to have a self-care plan to help minimize stress.  

“Make sure you are getting enough sleep, are eating regular and healthy meals, and drinking enough water,” she says. “All those things are incredibly helpful to minimize and decrease stress, including exercise, which has shown to be a highly effective treatment for stress and depression.” 

In 2015, 30% of college students reported that stress and anxiety had negatively affected their academic performance, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 

To Pleener, perception is key. It’s never the actual situation that is stressful, it’s the way somebody perceives it, he says.

“If two people are taking a test and one person thinks, ‘It is just a test. I will do the best I can.’ while the other person taking the same test thinks, ‘My whole life depends on this. What happens if I fail? What will my parents think?’ That person is going to have a stress response versus the first person,” Pleener explains. “So, it is the perception of things that make it stressful.” 

He encourages students to give their brain a break and a chance to reflect through meditation or exercise. This allows the brain to focus on one task at a time and push away the other stressors around a student. 

Michaelson also emphasizes that students should familiarize themselves with the types of mental health resources available at their college or university. At CAPS, currently enrolled UCF students can receive a confidential mental health screening, counseling appointment, group therapy session and other services free of charge. 

Recognize the Warning Signs

Parents are the first line of support for most students as they transition from high school to college. A simple phone call, video chat or text message can make a difference in your child’s day. However, parents should be aware of when change in behavior is a red flag in disguise.

Some warning signs of a serious anxiety disorder include isolation, weight gain or loss, declining grades and insomnia. Although this type of behavior can be common for a college student, Pleener points out that the most important warning sign parents should look out for is the student’s loss of interest. 

“If you start to see that they don’t enjoy doing things, like they might enjoy socializing or playing sports, prefer to be alone or their perception of the world has changed — that it is actually a cruel place — that is a warning sign for underlying depression,” Pleener says.

At this point, intervention or professional help is recommended. Encourage your child to meet with an on-campus or off-campus psychiatrist, therapist or other mental health professional to learn more about the resources and treatments available to them. If an anxiety disorder is left untreated, it can pave the way for depression and other serious mental disorders. 

Coping with an Empty Nest

As a parent, you want to offer your child the best life possible and dream about the day they get to go to college. Just like this bittersweet transition can affect first-year students, it can also affect parents. 

Empty-nest syndrome is not a clinical disorder, but it’s a theory that is emotionally challenging for parents who send their child off into adulthood. According to GoodTherapy, an online association of mental health professionals, feelings of loneliness, sadness and loss of purpose can take a toll on the parent’s quality of life. 

To cope with an empty nest, Pleener suggests engaging in personal relationships, hobbies and other meaningful activities. Keeping in mind the milestone your child has reached can also help change your perception.

“This is going to be a more exciting chapter that is going to bring a lot of success in the family,” Pleener says. “The future is right there. It will lead to an exciting and meaningful life.”

Similar to students, parents should also have a self-care plan to promote a healthy lifestyle and be aware of the warning signs to help reduce anxiety, stress or depression.  

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