Mental Health, Self-Regulation and College

I’ve done several posts now which details how nearly half of America’s college students drop out- with the largest percentage dropping out in the Freshman year.  Mental health issues are often behind a student’s failure to launch successfully in the college environment.  Parents often focus more on a student’s academic skills as opposed to their student’s resolve to recognize what goals need to be set and to the follow through with executing the necessary daily behaviors to achieve those goals.

Self-regulation, which is in part one’s ability to focus, plan, and execute targeted behaviors, is often a better predictor of academic outcomes than is IQ or grades.  A highly self-regulated student sets regular goals, keeps to a schedule, and has pre-planned responses to the challenges life will surely present.

Developing sufficient self-regulation skills are critical for staying the course in college, as is picking the right educational setting.  An Educational Consultant can assist with the critical decision.  For example, a student without the internal support to create and stick to a nightly bedtime might develop problems with sleeping in and skipping morning classes.  A student with the habit of studying 3 hours per night independently has the behavioral patterns needed to be successful in college.  Conversely, a student that has always needed parental re-direction in order to do any homework lacks the self-regulation skills needed and is unlikely to succeed.

Emotional Growth Boarding Schools, Wilderness Therapy Programs, Therapeutic Boarding Schools (TBS’s), Residential Treatment Centers (RTC’s), and behaviorally trained therapists in outpatient settings can help students who struggle with self-regulation acquire needed skills.  It is imperative for a student to acquire these skills in order to be successful in college.

Video Games and Online Activities

One danger of being on your own for the first time involves self-regulating your non-academic activities online.  A video game or social media addiction can quickly evolve into an all-consuming activity that impedes a student’s ability to become successful.

The other danger with online activities is safety, particularly for college-age women who are dating for the first time without parent supervision.  Parents should prepare their rising high school student for these dangers before college by discussing online safety, the importance of meeting in public for the first time, and how group dates can be used to further ensure the student’s safety.

Drugs and Alcohol

It is critical to speak with your student about the dangers of drugs and alcohol before college.  Help teach your child the best ways to respond to anger, stress, frustration, or rejection.

A student with poor coping skills might turn to alcohol or drugs.  Experimenting with substances dramatically increases a student’s chance of failure.  Students should come to college with pre-planned limits, which might include setting aside designated nights for staying out late where there are no responsibilities the next day, use of a designated driver, staying within the immediate college surroundings in lighted areas, and so on.

Discuss with your college student the dangers of intoxicating substances.  Providing real data, such as drunk driving statistics and fatalities in college due to substances can be helpful.  Providing resources and a plan for safety when presented with the temptation of substances can be helpful as well.

Students with high refusal skills are less likely to drink underage and do drugs. Decide on good ways to say “no” and practice them often in role-play situations.  This can apply to other high-risk area as well such as pre-marital sex and other risky behaviors.

As a parent you can use everyday life situations to being up the subject of drugs and alcohol.  Start by asking open ended questions that can’t be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.”  For example, while watching the news or a TV show you can bring up the subject when drugs or alcohol are present.  You can ask your child what they think about the effects of substances, and how will they respond when first offered?


Often, an individual’s first serious relationship starts in college.  Parents should be aware how their child reacts to disappointment and conflict.  It’s likely that the way they act towards you will be transferred over to a significant other in their first romantic relationship.

Students should be aware of the pitfalls of being in a romantic relationship on college.  For students with a mental health history, it is worthwhile to have a “go to” plan in case of a romantic spat.  In this way, if the relationship does end poorly, how a student reacts to the breakup is pre-planned.  Students should have support systems in place for this almost inevitable occurrence of college.

It’s also important to discuss with your student personal boundaries.  Teach your student the concept of “no means no.”  It’s important for students to understand that they will likely have several romantic relationships before meeting their spouse, and that learning to let go is a critical step in this journey.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy and also grief therapy have high success rates for helping to heal from the loss of a relationship.  Having family support and friends also helps.  A good strategy is to develop a social support network before entering into a romantic relationship so that the one has social resources if or when the relationship ends.


Pulling all night study sessions, dealing with the high costs of tuition and books, and trying to hold down a part-time job while going to class can create the perfect storm for a bought of depression.  We know that young people diagnosed with depression are five times more likely to attempt suicide than adults, and that suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students.  About 75 percent of college students do not seek help for mental health problems.

Parents can help their child prepare for depression in college by creating a “go-to” plan for when feelings of sadness, loneliness, and disappointment take over.  Without a plan for dealing with the signs of depression in place, a student may be tempted to turn to drugs, alcohol, or other risky behaviors.

Unfortunately, the social stigma of depression prevents many college students from reaching out.  Parents can talk to their rising college student about depression to normalize the disorder and to let them know treatment options that exist.  Parents can also provide educational materials to their student so that they can recognize the symptoms of depression.

Preparing for the Transition

Students should arrive on the college campus prepared to handle any crisis situation that is likely to occur.  If the student is currently on mental health medications, they should already be familiar with their medication regimen and how to obtain refills.

Additionally, the student should know how to access healthcare on campus.  Often colleges have therapists available in college supported student counseling centers.  If there is a crisis number for the college, the student should have this information accessible 24-7.

In preparation for your child’s first day at college, a parent of a student with mental health needs can take these steps:

  1. Provide a 30 to 60 day supply of medication, unless there is some reason why the student should have less medication available to them.
  2. If your student has a tendency to forget about taking medications, your pharmacy might be able to bubble pack the medication at a small additional cost. Setting an alarm on a mobile phone or alarm clock can remind the student when medications should be taken.
  3. Provide the child with a “cheat sheet” listing contact numbers for their prescribing physician, the pharmacy which dispenses their medication, and local health care numbers including the student support services number, school clinic, and local mental health providers.
  4. Have a conversation with your child about utilizing mental health support services at the school. Walk them over to the student support services desk so they know how to get there.  If the child would rather use a local provider and not someone connected to the school, go ahead and make their initial appointment and ensure they know how to get to the provider’s office.