The College Search: College Student Depression

May 12, 2010 7:34:46 AM PDT
During the '09-'10 academic year, six students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, committed suicide, half of them by jumping off bridges into deep ravines that run through the campus.

But while college guide books and some online student testimony suggest that Cornell is among the more academically demanding universities out there, it would be incorrect to assume that only the most competitive colleges have this problem.

Suicides on college campuses are an annual issue, and shift from school to school with no predictable pattern (Cornell, in fact, had no suicides for several years leading up to the recent rash). In an interview with CNN, Paula Clayton, Medical Director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says the national average for school suicides is 7.29 per 100,000 students. This means that, on average, a typical 20,000-student university can expect to see about 2 student suicides a year.

Most colleges have aggressive mental health programs. At Cornell, freshmen are given psychological screenings to try to identify those who may be at risk. But mental health professionals say another sort of screening is also essential. Parents need to have open, frank discussions with their children about depression and the reality of suicide on campus, before their children's college careers begin, and perhaps again, after the college days have started. Dr. Charles Nemeroff, of Emory University's School of Medicine, tells ABC News that students, who may be facing new stresses in college related to everything from heavy workload to social difficulties, are more vulnerable than others to suicide because they often don't understand the depression that can lead to it. Nemeroff says it's important to get the message through to prospective college students that depression, if it hits, is not unlike many physical disorders that, these days, can be treated efficiently with either a medical approach, or by simply talking to a trained counselor. Reaching out for help is not only essential, but usually nets good results, and help of this nature is almost always available on campus through the college's mental health office. Nemeroff also says students who are using drugs or who are drinking excessively are far more vulnerable, an important consideration for any parent who either knows or suspects that their child has a problem with drugs or alcohol.

Put your student in the driver's seat

Of course, short of suicide, depression can also stunt a student's success on campus and their general enjoyment of college. Most college counselors I've spoken to emphasize the importance of empowering prospective students during the college selection process as a way to up the odds of a successful experience. Parents, as much as they may desire a certain college over another, need to screen themselves and listen carefully to their students as the search for a school unfolds. Concerns about location, or the intensity of a given major or college should be discussed sensibly, and not discounted. But other than practical considerations, like cost and the right curriculum, a prospective student should be free to weigh all the options and have the final say on which university seems like the best fit.

Regardless of the sort of mental state in which your son or daughter resides, all new students should be made aware of the location and phone number of their college's mental health office, and there are multiple reasons for this. Having a comfort level and familiarity with this information can come in handy, not only if your student feels a need to reach out, but if one of your student's new classmates turns out to have troubles. It may turn out that it's your student who successfully guides another toward help, not a bad life lesson.

Stay tuned-in

Finally, parents should have a clear understanding with their student that an open line of communication is not only desired, but required during the college years, especially if any problems arise. Ideally, a couple of visits a year should be arranged, especially during the early stages of a child's college career. If worst comes to worst, and the chosen school turns out to be the wrong choice, the student should know going in that they have their parents' support in discussing and possibly arranging for a transfer to another similarly priced school.

Having this sort of unconditional support and open line of communication, mental health officials at my kids' colleges counsel, can help in avoiding serious problems later on. Becoming at least somewhat friendly with or knowledgeable about your child's roommates or chums isn't a bad idea, either. Also, get your college student's siblings involved through phone calls, text messages, Facebook, Skype, and an occasional campus visit. This can also serve to keep your child feeling supported and loved.

ARTICLES ABOUT COLLEGE, AND THE COLLEGE SEARCH: NCAA Athletics, Athletic Scholarships, Federal Need-Based Aid, Can I Ask For More Aid?, 529 Accounts, Myths About The Cost, Upromise, The Best Way To Pay, High School Course/Activities, ACT/SAT, How Many Colleges Should I Put On My List?, Compiling A List, Unsolicited Brochures, Campus Visits, Applying For Admission, Types of Applications, The College Search Preface

Read more Parenting Perspective blogs by visiting the Parenting Channel on