08/26/2015 08:21 EDT | Updated 08/26/2016 05:59 EDT

How to Support Your Teen's Mental Health While at University

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Co-authored by Dr. Elyse Dubo

Dr. Dubo is a staff psychiatrist in the Youth Mood and Anxiety Disorders clinic at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and has co-produced two films on teen depression.

For parents with children away at university, it can be a giant leap of faith to step back and let their young adult children be independent, and know that they will be OK. Most young adults transition to university without difficulty and take charge of this new independent phase of their lives with motivation to do well and the skills to navigate their academic and social lives. But for some young adults, the stress of being on their own to manage the academic and social demands of university life may be a breaking point that heralds or worsens mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.

Some troubled students will reach out for help to peers, parents, and student mental health services. Some, however, will go it alone, due to the shame of feeling they have failed and fear of disappointing their parents. I have repeatedly seen students go off to university, flounder, and then take to sleeping the days away in their dorm room, not attending a single class. Often these isolated young adults will take to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to feel "normal" and as a social camouflage so they are not found out by their peers to have mental health issues. This can set up a very dangerous situation and in the worst case scenario lead to impulsive, serious, self-harm behaviour.

So how can parents help ensure that their young adults at university are okay?

1. Is your teen ready?

The first step is for parents to make sure that their teen is ready to be at university. If high school was a struggle because of mental health issues, even if a teen was able to get the grades, it may be emotionally too much to be in university. Many parents fear that if their teens do not go to university directly from high school that they will never go. I have never seen this to be true. In fact, when a teen is not ready to go to university and does poorly, it can mar their chances of being accepted back and completing their degree. I have found that teens themselves usually know if they are ready to go to university. The best thing a parent can do is listen to their teen and accept where they are at, and possibly help the teen plan a gap year that will build their life skills and maturity.

2. Build a network of support

For young adults with known mental health issues, it is important to set them up with emotional and academic supports while away at university. Encouraging these young adults to make contact with student mental health services at the start of the year is important, rather than waiting for a crisis to occur and then not being able to get in to be seen. It may also be useful for the teen to contact the university special needs office to apply for academic accommodations if they have documented learning issues, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or significant mood and anxiety symptoms.

3. Listen and connect

The most important thing for parents to do to help ensure their kids at university are OK is to keep open lines of communication and a non-judgmental stance. Teens will not reach out to their parents for help if they feel they will be criticized or that they will disappoint their parents. Teens may encounter bumps in the road at university. Parents are best to provide a listening ear and help their teen problem solve and make good decisions for themselves so they can ultimately achieve their goals.

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