Watch For Warning Signals


Pam Detrie, Associate Director of Student Counseling


As budding young adults, it is quite natural for college students to move to increased independence. Parents can sometimes experience their student’s transition to adulthood as a period in which the increased psychological space feels uncomfortable and upsetting. Transitions usually involve change, and change can be in and of itself stressful for both students and families. In the midst of the transitional stress that students and parents typically go through, it is important for parents to be sensitized to any signs their student is experiencing distress in adjusting to these changes. Early recognition and intervention can sometimes actually prevent the development of a full-blown mental health concern. This article highlights some of the signals to look for that could indicate the presence of an underlying issue that might need further exploration. 

One of the most important signals to look for is any significant change in behavior or personality. If your student just doesn’t seem like himself/herself, you may be dealing with a student in distress. For example, if your student has always shown interest in keeping up with friends and family back home, but no longer initiates phone calls home, this could be a sign of distress. If there is a noticeable change in attitude, in friends, or even in goals, these could be signals that there is something else going on.

Other signals that a student might be experiencing distress involve changes in self-care patterns. Changes in sleeping or eating patterns may be indicative of distress and the presence of a mental health concern such as depression, insomnia, or even an eating disorder. A student who seems to have little motivation or energy might be dealing with a significant level of depression. Expressed hopelessness for the future is important to watch for because this also suggests that an individual may be experiencing a significant level of depression.

On the other end of the behavioral spectrum, it is also important to watch out for moods that might be expansive or energy that seems supercharged. If your student’s mood seems expansive and behavior comes off as over the top, your student may be experiencing a manic type episode or might be dealing with a substance use issue. Sometimes it is easy to overlook moods that seem to be euphoric or periods in which energy is extremely high, but these high periods can be dangerous in and of themselves, and sometimes moods can then plummet to depths that are high risk as well.

Another distress signal is social withdrawal or isolation. Students who stop regularly attending class or no longer want to be around friends may be dealing with psychological concerns. A student may experience social situations as too overwhelming or feel like he/she does not have enough mental energy to deal with anything other than the depression, anxiety, or other stressor that he/she is experiencing.

As a parent, it might be tempting to think that you should come in and fix the problem to make everything okay for your student. In many cases, however, it is important to resist this urge. Pushing too hard to make things better might actually lead to increased stress for the student and even resistance to help. This does not mean you should turn a cold shoulder to your student when he or she is in need. Making yourself available to talk and discussing campus and community resources are great ways to help while allowing your student to drive the process. The Rhodes Student Counseling Center is available for students as a place where students can talk to a trained professional in a confidential environment. You might also suggest that your student talk with someone in Residence Life, an academic advisor, or some other member of the Rhodes community who could assist in exploring options for care.