Back to College Anxiety

This fall, as millions of students arrive at college campuses across the U.S., so will waves of uncertainty for students and their families. 6,600 COVID-19 cases can be traced back to an estimated 270 colleges and universities, according to a recent survey by The New York Times. Some anxiety will be normal during this back-to-school process. Leaving home is an even greater stressor for student who will be attending out-of-state schools. It is important to be able to differentiate between “nervous jitters” and anxiety that may warrant more serious clinical attention. Student who already have anxiety, depression, and social phobias, are at increased risk.

All students, particularly those who have already experienced mental health issues, should have a plan in place in case things get too difficult to handle. Awareness and treatment are essential to preventing crises that result in failing classes, dropping out, or severe emotional issues. Among the most common problems seen with college students are anxiety disorders, depression, substance use, psychotic episodes, and relationship troubles. That doesn’t include many other mental health concerns. Fortunately, there are strategies that parents and universities can put in place to mitigate these concerns.

First, school counselors and counseling centers should be prepared for a higher number of cases walking through their doors. Colleges and universities may want to consider adding additional staff or services when possible. Expansion of wellness centers or services provided by wellness centers can help students to manage their mental health and well-being. Some schools have already installed additional social workers stationed throughout the university, plus additional college psychology interns have been made available to help, as well as counselors and school psychologists.

In addition to supplementing their staffs, university counseling centers can also contract with local psychologist and therapist to provide greater access to therapy and counseling. Prior to students returning, college outreach coordinator can set up virtual workshops for students to meet each other online and to learn more about the campus and where mental health resources are located.

One obvious strategy that can help manage student anxiety is to make sure colleges and universities have implemented appropriate safety precautions when it comes to sanitation, such as providing hand sanitizer stations and ensuring the classrooms are cleaned more often.

College is such an important time for developing interpersonal skills. For students with anxiety, it would be crucial to focus on programs or workshops that can teach students the social skills needed to build healthy and connected relationships. This will help decrease social anxiety while also assisting students to connect with each other. Another strategy is for colleges to allow students to know who they will be paired with in dorms and allow them to meet virtually before meeting in person. Resident life coordinators and housing staff can help in this process as they have more day-to-day and intimidate contact with students. Peer counseling programs are another great way to support the upcoming need for mental health services at universities.

Teachers and professors should be trained to look for and properly identify early signs of mental health problems. These signs often go unnoticed, and in some cases, even avoided. Currently, 1 in 4 young adults say they’ve considered suicide because of the pandemic. Workshops and presentations on suicide awareness and prevention can also be a powerful tool for helping students and staff. Faculty can also increase their office hours and be intentional about more frequent “check-ins” with students. This can provide students with a greater sense of safety and increase the likelihood that they will report emotional and psychological problems earlier on.

For students who already deal with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, colleges can bring more awareness to university disability services which can help students access academic accommodations. These departments our housed within every university and are tasked with making sure students have academic accommodations which can include:

  • Deadline extensions
  • Separate exam rooms
  • Use of a digital recorder
  • Preferred classroom seating
  • Completing work at home/dorm
  • Additional breaks during class or exams
  • Written exams instead of oral presentations

Students can pre-register for disability support services to access these helpful accommodations. Students can also consider making an appointment with their campus mental health center to determine what services are available through the university.

If they are already under the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist, parents should ensure that their child is able to continue that care while away at school. Even if in-person supports may not be as readily available, most clinicians now provide assistance over the phone and through telehealth platforms. Having a solid plan in place will make it easier for college students to obtain mental health services should they become necessary.

It’s also important for parents to keep an eye out for the symptoms of depression and anxiety that are less common but still indicators of a mental health struggle. These include:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Social isolation
  • Constant worry
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of motivation
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities

A sudden drop in academic performance can be another sign that support is needed. If possible, parents should encourage more frequent trips home during the first year. At a minimum, parents should make time for regular phone conversations with their college-aged kids. And parents shouldn’t just limit their communication to emails and texts. It’s easier to detect if something is bothering their child by listening to their voice or seeing them virtually than it is to interpret their mood via a text message. Parents should also manage their expectations for their children’s academic performance in the first semester as they transition back. Perfection is not a realistic goal. It’s important to let your children know that you support them, no matter what. A perfect GPA isn’t worth it if it comes at the expense of your child’s emotional well-being.

Contributed by: Dr. Carlos Garcia

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