Being a freshman in college is exciting: meeting new people, learning new things, and figuring out who you are. But these big changes can also trigger or worsen mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
If untreated, those disorders can be fatal. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.
And all too often, parents have no idea that the student is struggling.
Stateside talked to Colleen Edmonds, a board member with the Michigan chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and MSU Psychiatrist Dr. Farha Abbasi, about what's driving these scary statistics, and what parents and colleges can do to support students struggling with mental health issues.
Edmonds lost her daughter Meghan to suicide in July of 2014 following Meghan's freshman year of college at the University of Michigan. Since then, Edmonds has become an advocate for suicide prevention.
Edmonds said she sees some things moving in the right direction. For instance, an increasing number of peer support groups across the country, like Active Minds, which has chapters on more than 400 campuses. But she said there is still room for improvement.
“I just think that the schools need to train their faculty better to look for signs when people are struggling,” she said.
When it comes to suicide and any health-related matter, university officials' hands can be tied by privacy laws. Edmonds says that there are some proactive steps parents can take to keep themselves in the loop, like having their children sign HIPPA agreements to allow access to their medical records. More importantly, she says parents need to discuss mental health with their children before they go off to college.
“I think you need to have the discussion with your child that mental health is as important as your physical health. And it’s ok to ask for help. It always was a stigma, and we have to break that stigma,” she added.
Dr. Farha Abbasi, a psychiatrist at Michigan State University, agrees. She told Stateside it's important for parents to have open channels of communication with their children.
"As a parent, you are not their advisor. You are not there to control them, but to be their ally, be their advocate, help them navigate this new stress," she explained.
Abbasi believes that students today face greater levels of stress and mental health issues than any other generation, and that's reflected in the statistics about suicide and mental health disorders among young people. "It's scary. It's a silent epidemic, and I don't know what it will take to wake up to it," she said. When students leave for college, Abbasi said parents should keep an eye out for any sudden changes in behavior in their child, or any talk of hurting themselves or others. Parents can also monitor how well the student is functioning. Are they keeping up with school and maintaining social relationships? If not, Abbasi said those could be red flags that the student is struggling.
The Michigan chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will hold meetings all around Michigan this coming Saturday, November 17, for National Survivors of Suicide Day. You can get information and locations by going to afsp.org.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.