Setting Your Young Adult Up for Success: Advice for Caregivers of a College Student with Depression

Date Posted

August 3, 2023


Lindsay Schwartz


Ah, college! The excitement of new friends and experiences, a nip in the air, a well-manicured quad. Your child taking the next step toward a future shining with possibilities! At least, that’s the fantasy. The reality is that as move-in day approaches, many students and their families experience a mix of emotions, including anxiety and grief, especially if you’re supporting a college student with depression.

Caregivers sending off students with mental health conditions like depression may feel even more conflicted as they worry about whether their young adults will receive the support they need to be successful while away from home.

Sending your child to college marks an important transition. For the young adult, it’s a shift from what is often a highly supervised and structured home and school environment to the semi-independence of dorm living. For parents, college signals the need to adopt a new role, which often requires a careful dance between stepping in and stepping back.

How can you best support your college student with depression while encouraging autonomy? Which struggles are normal in the context of college adjustment? Which signal something more serious? Here are some pointers for supporting your college student’s mental health (and safeguarding your own sanity in the process).

Promoting College Student Mental Health

1.   Connect with on-campus resources

  • Contact the college disabilities office to set up an intake. In most cases, this will involve a conversation with the student to take a brief history of diagnoses and accommodations. The school may then request documentation from your child’s mental health care provider to determine the appropriate supports.
  • Connect with the college counseling office. Find out what services are available to students and how to access them. You may also want to get or create a list of local mental health care providers, as many schools offer students only a limited number of counseling sessions.
  • Have your young adult sign a release so that you can communicate about their mental health needs with college personnel. The College and Mental Health guide, published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Jed Foundation, includes a sample release.

2.   Keep the lines of communication open

  • College Student with Depression_Student Messaging with ParentTalk to your young adult about what type and frequency of communication would be the most helpful while they are away. While text messaging is convenient, you may be better able to assess how your child is doing if you can periodically hear their voice and/or see their face.
  • Ask your young adult what they need from you during these conversations. Do they need to vent or would they like your advice? Do they need your help connecting to on-campus resources?
  • Although it is difficult, resist the impulse to jump in and “fix” whatever challenges may arise. Think of yourself as more of a coach than a caregiver. Your role is to support your young adult so they feel empowered to help themselves.
  • Help your child differentiate between “normal” adjustment issues like homesickness and academic stress and other, more serious issues. Identify depression’s “red flags” and obstacles, such as self-isolation or a change in sleeping patterns.
  • Underscore that needing and accessing help is NOT a failure but rather a strength and a key to college success. Similarly, it’s okay if your young adult’s college experience does not match their expectations. Sometimes it takes more than one try to find the best fit.

3.   When to step in

Deciding when to step in on behalf of your college student with depression is more of an art than a science. Expect to make a few missteps and learn as you go! If you feel the urge to step in, ask whether it’s for your child’s benefit or to ease your own anxiety. Talk to family members or your child’s care providers about your concerns and solicit their perspectives. You can also ask your child, “How can I be supportive?” Ultimately, however, you may need to trust your gut for when to intervene on your child’s behalf.

4.   Get your own support

  • Talk to family and friends, especially those who are going through the same transition
  • Check out online resources like Grown and Flown or The JED Foundation.
  • Consider joining the parent Facebook group for your child’s school. Note, however, that these groups vary widely in content and degree of moderation. While some contain helpful information about campus events and resources, others include misinformation or inappropriate venting.

Sending your child off to college can be both exciting and daunting, especially when they have a mental health condition like depression. The transition to semi-independent living requires a careful balance between autonomy and support. By helping your young adult connect with on-campus resources, keeping the lines of communication open, and knowing when to step in, families can successfully navigate college life, from move-in day all the way to commencement.

Lindsay Schwartz is a psychotherapist in private practice in Acton, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders. She has a background in school counseling and a special interest in mindfulness-based treatments.  Lindsay earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English from Williams College, and her Master’s degree in Social Work from Simmons College. In her free time, Lindsay enjoys writing, reading, running, and spending time with her husband and 2 children.