I was compensated by Med-IQ through an educational grant from Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. and Lundbeck to write about depression in college-aged students. All opinions are my own.
As I stood on the curb of my dormitory parking lot, I could see my dad’s car slowly making its way to me. I remember readjusting my duffle bag in the chilly winter air and silently willing him to hurry up. His progress was slowed by the other college kids cramming their trunks with huge vats of processed cheese from the dining hall and two months’ worth of laundry.
It was my first semester of college and winter break was about to start. I was headed home to spend a few weeks with my family, stuff my face with pumpkin pie and food that wasn’t served on a tray at 9 pm, and sleep for days.
Oh, and I was going to break the news to my parents: I wasn’t going back to college.
At least, that was my plan.
When I was accepted to nursing school the year before, I couldn’t wait to leave home. I spent the entire summer trolling the aisles of JC Penney for the perfect dusty rose comforter and seafoam green sheets. I eagerly packed my Disney movie posters, my crates full of CDs from BMG Music Service, and my boom box. I’d spoken to my new roommate twice over the summer: she was bringing a rug for our room, I was in charge of the microwave. Oh, and we agreed we’d both chip in for a refrigerator.
On the day we pulled up to my dorm room, it was like I couldn’t get my family out the door fast enough. My father attempted to direct the chaos, my mother kept trying to help me decorate, and my brothers spent the entire time making fart jokes. By the time they finally left, I was relieved. And, the sight of my brother giving me the finger as the door closed on the elevator sealed it for me: I was a grown up and my new life was about to begin.
And it was great.
Until it wasn’t.
Two weeks into my semester, the reality of living on my own set in: I struggled with managing my time during the week and the expectations of my college instructors caught me off guard. And, because my schedule was no longer filled with eight-hour school days, color guard practices, and the busy social life of high school, I found myself with long stretches of time with nothing to do, particularly on the weekends.
A month in, I was officially homesick and by the time my father rolled his Buick up to the curb on which I was standing, I was certain I wasn’t going to return for a second semester.
When I arrived home, the sights and smells of home were comforting. My own bed, my private phone line that I had spent hours yapping on in high school was still in service, and a washing machine that didn’t require quarters solidified my decision that I was moving back home. I just had to break the news.
I worked up the courage to tell my parents one briskly cold Sunday afternoon, expecting that they’d welcome me home with open arms.
Not so much.
In fact, I think my Dad’s exact words were, “Nope. You are going back, young lady.” And that was that, it seemed.
I was stupefied when I realized that my parents were standing their ground when it came to me moving back home. “Tough love” they called it. And though they encouraged me to discuss my feelings, the message was still clear: I was going back to college, case closed.
And, as I sullenly sat in the car on the way back to school after the holidays, I resigned myself to homesickness and anxiety being part of my college experience. I told myself to “get over it” and threw myself into my studies.
Did I eventually adjust? Yes.
Did I make lifelong friends and find a way to enjoy college life? Yup.
Do I wish I had more of an opportunity to explore my feelings about homesickness during those first few months of school? Yes, for infinity.
Do I think about that time in my life frequently now that I’m raising teens who are about to embark on their college journeys? Also yes.
Recently, my teenage son came home from school and, as he describes, he felt down. Nothing in particular came to mind as a reason, but he just felt like his emotions were a jumble. Because both my husband and I were at work, we didn’t know he was feeling emotionally charged until we arrived home a few hours later.
My heart burst with gratitude when he came to us and said, “Hey, guys, I’m feeling rough emotionally today. Can we talk about it?” I was so grateful that my husband and I have fostered a no judgement zone in our home when it comes to mental health. As I hugged my son and we talked about ways he could manage feeling overwhelmed with his junior year, I hoped he’d always feel comfortable coming to us.
Of course, you never want to see your teen struggle but the reality is that they have very real emotions and fears as they face heading off to college and life on their own after graduation.
The time to talk about those emotional moments is in high school. We have a “check up from the neck up” rule around our house when it comes to our teens: we regularly talk to them about how they are feeling and about the stresses they experience in their daily high school lives.
We tell them that nothing is off limits and we take it one step further: we thank them and praise them for coming to us during life’s toughest moments. And we make sure they see us prioritizing our mental health, too: we don’t hide therapy appointments and my husband and I practice self-care with exercise, down time, and relaxation openly.
The holidays are upon us and that means many college students are coming home for Thanksgiving and winter break vacations. By now, those students have really experienced what a transition it is from high school to college – they have managed an array of stressors like academic, home-sickness, financial aid, possibly social pressures like underage drinking or sexual pressure.
And they are looking for us to help them manage their fears, anxieties, and stresses.
When your kid says, “I feel homesick,” tell them about your own experiences in college and find common ground.
When your kid says, “I’m worried about money,” listen to their fears and help them make better financial choices with budgeting and work study.
And, if your kid says, “I feel depressed,” take them seriously and ask for help from a mental health professional.
If you don’t know how to begin a mental health conversation with your teen, don’t panic.
Online resources like this one can help open the lines of communication and there are screening tools available for parents who are concerned about college related depression and anxiety. And, if your teen is making the transition from high school to college, Set To Gois a great resource designed to ease the bumpy road from high school to adulthood.
Whatever you do, just check in “from the neck up” from time to time.
Ask your kid how he’s feeling, even if he seems like he’s having a great day. Don’t wait until a mental health crisis strike to ask your teen what she needs to feel emotionally secure.
And if all else fails (and to take a play out of the Golden Girls’ playbook), have a cheesecake or a pumpkin pie waiting on the counter when your teen comes in from visiting with friends this holiday season. In the time it takes you to serve up a heaping plate of pie and ice cream, your teen might just surprise you with what’s going on from the neck up.
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