How to Help From Far Away




Written by Amy Mezulis, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer at Joon.

It’s the phone call no parent wants to get. Your college student is NOT okay. Maybe they’re calling in the middle of a panic attack, totally overwhelmed with the stress of their classes. Maybe they’re calling crying, alone in their room on a Friday night, feeling isolated and lonely. Maybe they’re calling because they’re down and depressed, wondering if they made the right choice of school. And you’re on the other end of that line, not with them in person, wondering how to help from far away.

If this has happened to you, you’re not alone! Many college students struggle with their mental health, and parents play an important role in supporting their college-age children and helping them access resources.

Mental Health Is a Common Concern Among College Students

College brings a plethora of new challenges and stresses to teens and young adults. Academically, there’s both an increase in expectations for quality of work and a decrease in the structure and grace most students benefited from in high school. While most students love the more flexible schedule and less time spent in class, many find it challenging to structure this newfound free time, especially in their first year. Learning to study and work independently can take time to master, and professors are unlikely to give extensions or make exceptions. Many students find themselves struggling academically for the first time.

Socially, it is a whole new scene. College students have to make new friends, which takes time and effort—while trying to stay connected with family and friends from home. Even the most socially adept students often feel lonely in college as it takes time for strong, trusting, and close relationships to emerge. There are new social challenges to meet, balancing academic work and self-care with ever-present opportunities to socialize and party.

Many students face these challenges with additional stressors that may be hidden from others. Students who are first-generation, on financial aid, and from underrepresented backgrounds may find it especially difficult to adjust to college. Finding peers you connect with can be extra challenging for minority students, and those with financial, family, or medical concerns have even more things to worry about on top of classes and their social life.

As a result of all these new demands, it is no surprise that many college students struggle with their mental health. In a survey of 400 college freshmen conducted by Appily and Joon, we found that over over 60% reported being moderately to seriously concerned about their mental health. This rate aligns with national data—Inside Higher Education reports that two-thirds of college students report concerns about their mental health. The most commonly cited mental health concerns for college students include depression, anxiety, loneliness, and stress. So, if you’re receiving that phone call, you are not alone.

It Can Be Difficult for College Students to Get the Help They Need

Although most college students will need mental health support at some point, there are a lot of factors that interfere with them getting the help they need. Among the 400 freshmen we surveyed, more than half of them reported needing more mental health help than they are receiving. Similarly, Inside Higher Education reports that only about 15% of college students receive counseling services—a figure far below the 60% or more that have mental health problems.

What gets in the way of students receiving the help they need? Turns out, there are a lot of barriers to mental health support in college. Some of these barriers are logistical—college counseling centers can have long wait lists, a lack of diverse clinicians, or have to refer students out for costly services. But many of the barriers to accessing mental health care have to do with stigma or lack of information. In a survey of over 6,000 teens and college students conducted by Appily and Joon, we found that the number one reason students did not seek out support was feeling too embarrassed to ask for mental health help. Also at the top of the list of reasons for not seeking support was not knowing who or how to ask for help.

It can be difficult to navigate a complex landscape of mental health support in the best of times. Do I need help? What happens at the counseling center? What about insurance and cost? Will my professors know? Will it help? And so on… To try to address these questions when you’re already feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed can be downright overwhelming.

This is where parents can step in and support their students.

How Parents Can Support Their Students’ Mental Health Needs

  1. Check-in often (but not too often) 

The first step to supporting your teen when they’re struggling is knowing that they’re struggling… and you can only know that if you check in with them often. Now, “often” probably doesn’t mean a dozen texts every day! Talk with them about what frequency of contact makes sense for the two of you. You can also observe their behavior—if you’re texting multiple times a day, are they ignoring your texts? This might be a signal that you’re checking in too often. But once you and your teen have found your groove, make sure that some of those contacts are substantive check-ins.

  1. Make yourself available to listen to their struggles 

It can be easy to fall into the parenting trap of shooting off a stream of questions that beg for performative answers—What did you get on the midterm? Who are you going out with this weekend?  Make space in the conversations to ask openly about how they are feeling. Ask questions such as: “How do you feel you’re doing? What is going well, and what isn’t going so well? What parts of college are harder than expected?” Be mindful of your own beliefs, experiences, or projections. For example, if you had a positive experience at college, assuming they will too, or if you make friends easily, assuming they will. Also, be cautious about focusing solely on grades or activities and not taking time to ask about emotional well-being, loneliness, or anxiety.

  1. Ask how you can support them

Before you turn to advice-giving or problem-solving, give your teen the opportunity to tell you what they think might be helpful. Ask them questions such as: “What have you tried? What is helping and what isn’t helping?” Let them lead the conversation to teach you what kind of support would be helpful. One interesting fact from the Appily and Joon survey was that about a quarter of students surveyed just wanted their parents to listen to them when they were struggling—that supportive ear might be more powerful than you know.

  1. If they need help and agree to let you help, offer to be the problem-solver

Navigating the landscape of resources, providers, and insurance can be daunting, especially for brand-new young adults who haven’t had to navigate healthcare before. Often, the best first step is for you to do the legwork of identifying specific resources and giving that information to your teen to act on independently. Many colleges will not allow parents of 18+ students to make counseling or health center appointments for their child—but you can ask questions about how to make appointments and pass that information on to your teen to make it easier for them. Similarly, many young adults do not understand how to use health services or insurance independently, and parents can help demystify the process of seeking support. For example, many college students want to know what their parents can and cannot see about the health services they use if they’re still on their parent’s insurance. If you’re stuck researching what resources are available to your teen, check out the campus website for “counseling” and “student support” services. If you haven’t started the college journey yet, you can plan ahead.

While it is hard for us parents to see our children struggling from far away, it helps not to feel helpless. Even from a distance, we can support our kids in many ways, from demonstrating our love and care to being an active and supportive listener to helping connect them with campus and home resources.

To learn more about Joon, click the button below. As an Appily partner, Joon offers families a $150 discount when starting therapy.

Joon offers personalized, evidence-based online therapy to 13-24 year olds, integrating the benefits of one-on-one therapy sessions with a mobile app-based experience, along with support and resources for parents and guardians. Clients get convenient, scheduled, one-on-one therapy with qualified, diverse professionals along with interactive tools to support skill building and individual well-being. Evidence shows that the results are as good as or better than in-person therapy in reducing clinical and severe anxiety and depression.