How to Manage Back to School Stress

Nearly any parent could hear themselves saying it to their college-bound kids, even before the words have left their mouths: “You’re so lucky; I wish I were going back to college!”

The comments, of course, are meant to be supportive. The kids are embarking on “the four best years of their life.”

Not so fast.

As David Rosenberg, Chair of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Wayne State University, writes in The Conversation: “Many of us think of college as a wondrous time of new experiences and great freedom to explore new ideas and find one’s true self. In recent years, however, depression and anxiety have afflicted college students at alarming rates. As noted in the latest Center for Collegiate Mental Health report, anxiety and depression are the top reasons that college students seek counseling.”

We know that among the results of – and risk factors for – stress at school can include drug or alcohol consumption by students. One step towards helping students cope with stress: Help them prepare for stress even before they leave home for school.

Back to School Stress: Does Early Intervention Help?

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs and titled “Evaluation of timing and dosage of a parent-based intervention to minimize college students’ alcohol consumption” evaluated “the timing and dosage of a parent-based intervention to minimize alcohol consumption for students with varying drinking histories.”

The results were powerful indicated that “the pre-college matriculation condition was most effective at influencing baseline heavy drinkers’ transition out of this pattern to lower risk patterns at first follow-up, whereas the after college matriculation condition was not effective at preventing drinking escalation for baseline nondrinkers at first follow-up.”

In other words, as the researchers conclude: “The results underscore the value of pre-college parental interventions and targeted efforts to reduce high-risk drinking among college students.”

A New York Times report noted similar potential for parental impact: “Experts urge parents to listen to their freshmen, noting red flags like major changes in their sleep or activities, and to make certain their child knows where to seek help, if needed.

As Dr. George Koob, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told the NYT: “Freshman year is a period of vulnerability for some mental disorders, like major depressive episodes, because of the high stress levels of adjustment and the fact that the brain is still laying down those final tracks,” Dr. Koob said.

Another support avenue can be mentoring and monitoring programs that help provide tools for students, parents and school administrators.

Dr. Rosenberg writes: “The key is recognizing those at highest risk and who are most vulnerable early. Colleges have to respond on day one and confront the stigma that still follows those with mental illness. Training peer support groups is vital. This is not something to be done in isolation but under the guidance, supervision, and training of experienced psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric social workers.”

“Most of all, students and parents need to know from the very beginning of the college experience that the physical and mental well-being of students matters. Managing stress is a big part of that challenge. Taking up a sport or related physical activity, such a racquet ball or rock climbing could be beneficial. Colleges should let parents and students know that there are trained and qualified people who can help students at risk discreetly and confidentially.”