At this time of year, most students, regardless of their grade or level, are settling back into a routine of school after holiday breaks. For many college students and their parents, this is a time when homesickness and other anxiety can be at its worst. In fact, Norma Ngo, Psy.D., Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Houston, says many students struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety during the back-to-school rush.
“It’s very common. Those feelings can really take the front seat with all the newness that comes with back-to-school time,” she says. “As you can imagine, a lot is changing for students. There may be a return to more unstructured schedules, new roommates, and new living arrangements, just to start. And so you often see some adjustment issues as students try to figure all this new stuff out.”
But how can a parent or friend tell when a student may be having more than just some trouble adjusting to a new back-to-school routine? Ngo says that it pays to trust your gut.
“During parent orientation, I tell parents that they are the experts. They know their students a lot better than we do. So if something seems off, it’s important to check in,” she says. “Some students may have a diagnosis of depression or anxiety before going back to school. Others may be experiencing it for the first time. But if a parent notices extreme changes in behavior or mood, then it’s time to communicate what you’re seeing. Friends can do the same.”
Ngo says some common signs of depression and anxiety are social withdrawal, weight loss, increased alcohol and drug use, sleep problems, and attitudinal changes like increased irritability and anger. Students may also report feelings of loneliness and depression. And it pays for loved ones to listen when they do.
“This is when you can ask the student, ‘Is everything okay?'” she says. “And then get more specific with what you are seeing. Even though having that conversation may be uncomfortable, it’s often a relief to the depressed or anxious person when someone does check in. It makes them feel less alone and gives them the opportunity to share what’s going on with them.”
Ngo says it’s important for students and their loved ones to understand that depression and anxiety disorders are treatable—and catching them early increases the chances of responding positively to treatments.
“Someone caring enough to intervene can make a big difference. And it only takes one person to reach out and make that difference,” she says. “Students who may be struggling with depression need to know that there is hope, there is help, and there are resources to help them through it. So staying connected is really important.”