Carnegie Mellon University

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January 06, 2020

Student Mental Health & Wellness: A Guide for Family Members

College students are moving through new experiences and learning about themselves along the way. These experiences and lessons are an important part of the process of maturation. As students change and grow, they will likely encounter struggles. While this is a natural part of the process of becoming an adult, students might feel confused, anxious, overwhelmed or distressed at times. They can benefit greatly by feeling supported and understood throughout the good times and the times of struggle.

Here are a few suggestions on how to support your student while at CMU:

Stay connected.
Listen to your student. Often students simply need to talk about what's going on in their lives and want a familiar, trusted person to listen.

Ask questions.
Show interest in what your student is doing, how they are adjusting, and what they are learning. Your student may not want to talk in depth each time, but they will know you are there for them.

Allow your student to set the agenda for some of your conversations.
If your student needs help or support, make room for touchy subjects to arise and calmly address them.

Expect change.
As your student develops independence and autonomy, the nature of your relationship with your student will change. Some changes can feel unsettling or scary. It's helpful to accept that changes will and should happen, but talk with your student about them and work together to identify the best way to adjust.

Remember that autonomy and responsibility are the goals.
The college years are the time that individuals develop into young adults. This process benefits from a flexible and responsive parenting style that accommodates shifts of control and independence. 

If your student contacts you in a state of distress or appears different than usual, we encourage you to remain calm and supportive while asking directly about what might be wrong.

If your student is willing to talk, you can help them think through the issue and find possible options. If your student is hesitant to talk, encourage them to consider contacting CaPS, their RA or Housefellow, or speaking to a trusted friend/relative as a starting point. We encourage you to learn about resources available to your student in order to help them take the important step of reaching out for help.

Know Possible Warning Signs of Distress

  • Significant changes in mood, behavior and/or appearance
    While change in college is normal, drastic changes, particularly in regards to behavior and appearance, can be indicators of difficulties and should be attended to. Is your student suddenly regularly tired/angry/quiet when you speak to them in a way that seems out of character? Do they look disheveled when they used to be perhaps really careful about their image? Have they gained or lost significant amounts of weight? None of these may be in themselves signs of mental health distress as there could be a satisfying explanation for each of them, but in conjunction with any of the items below they would be a cause for concern.
  • Isolation/loneliness
    Although everyone at times enjoys periods of "alone time," persistent isolation and loneliness can be linked to mental health concerns. Is your student always by themselves when you talk to them? Do they speak of friends? Are they engaged in any extra-curricular activities? We know that social engagement and a broad support network that includes friends and family are protective factors when it comes to mental health. 
  • Apathy, lethargy, withdrawal
    Loss of motivation, diminished energy to tackle daily obligations and withdrawal from pleasurable activities are all potentially signs of mental health concerns.
  • Academic struggles
    Failing to meet expectations academically can be very difficult. Academic achievement can be a good barometer for assessing how your student is doing in general, as it is difficult to do well academically when one is struggling psychologically, and, on the other hand, academic struggles tend to increase stress, feelings of disappointment, shame, etc., and can ultimately lead to depression and anxiety.
  • Severe worry
    Although some level of anxiety and worry is normal, severe anxiety and worry that interferes with daily life is problematic and/or potentially diagnostic. If your student begins to avoid events, places, people or actions, or speaks of constant worries it might be a sign that requires professional attention.
  • Persistent sadness and hopelessness
    Temporary sadness associated with homesickness, for example, or with relational struggles or academic challenges is to be expected and a normal part of human functioning. Sadness or hopelessness that persists long after the event that caused it is resolved and that interferes with daily functioning is worrisome. If your student does not have any “future oriented” talk, that may be a cause for concern.

When do I reach out to the University?

If you feel your student is experiencing a psychological crisis, we recommend you trust your instincts and respond in a caring and immediate way. 

If you believe your student is an imminent danger to themselves or to others call the University Police Department (CMU PD) at 412-268-2323. CMU PD can mobilize resources on and off-campus (including Pittsburgh Police) to assist in locating a student who may be in immediate danger and getting them help.

If it is not a crisis situation, but you are concerned about your student’s well-being or are unsure of where to turn, Carnegie Mellon's Dean of Student’s office (412-268-2075) will provide guidance and get the right resources involved.