Ask a college student to describe their campus experience and you’ll expect to hear stories of friends, laughter, parties and romance, perhaps a bit about classes and professors. Most folks think back to “Where the Boys Are” and other classic college movies for images of college life, but, recent surveys paint a very different picture. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of college students suffer with anxiety at levels interfering with their ability to learn, feel confident about themselves and relate to others. 

Anxiety on campus

Start by listening to what your student is or is not saying. When youth are tuned in and engaged at college, you get to know the names of friends and professors and you’ll hear about people and their personalities week after week.

Panic attacks, “freezing up” and not being able to function, worry about negative evaluation and constant rumination over little things are some of the ways that anxiety traps students. As anxiety increases, the student’s work and relationships suffer as it becomes more difficult to study, sleep, attend class and hang out with friends. Depression builds, and substance use may relieve momentary stress but then backfires and worsens the situation. And, surveys find over 30 percent of students who seek help at college counseling centers have seriously considered attempting suicide. 

The pressures of life via social media, increased emphasis on perfection and getting the highest scores on tests, financial stress and competition for next steps after college all contribute to the uptick of anxiety on campus. Meanwhile, back at home, parents are often the last to know about these struggles.Too often their student arrives home feeling overwhelmed, and while some take a leave of absence if things are out of control, others come home having endured too much angst and do not want to return to school.

How parents can help

What should parents look for and what to do? 

Start by listening to what your student is or is not saying. When youth are tuned in and engaged at college, you get to know the names of friends and professors and you’ll hear about people and their personalities week after week. The absence of details may indicate isolation, so gentle prompting to “tell me about X” may uncover difficulties. 

It’s normal to hear some complaints. From “Mystery Meat” in the cafeteria to “the professor is wacky,” unchecked complaints can fester more negativity. Ask “What would you like to do?” to think through options for problem solving.

Direct your youth towards resources that can help. On-campus counseling centers and community clinicians, at home and near school, can offer your student support, skills for managing stress and anxiety, strategies for engaging in campus life and for finding academic support. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers a wealth of information and links to effective treatment options.