I was compensated by Med-IQ through an educational grant from Otsuka America
Pharmaceutical, Inc. and Lundbeck to write about depression in college-aged students.
All opinions are my own.

I had just picked up Lucas and his friends from the bus stop. He leaned his lanky 13-year-old body as far away from me as he could, his forehead pressed against the window, his long dark hair covering most of his face. Was he mad at me? Or was this just normal teenage moodiness? His friends were in the car, so I didn’t ask about it right then. But I gave him a light tap on the knee to let him know I knew something was up.

I couldn’t ask what was going on when he got home, either; I had two back-to-back violin lessons to teach. As I set up my music stand, I saw Lucas trudge into his room and flop on his bed with his back to the door. Between violin lessons, he ventured out of his room for a snack and I intercepted him for a quick second. “Hey, you all right? Rough day?”

He shrugged without looking me in the eye. “I’m fine. Gonna get a snack.”

After my lessons, I threw together an easy dinner of frozen pizza and salad. Lucas was in a better mood but still not quite his usual energetic, silly self. “Hey,” I said, trying to get him to look up from his plate. “What’s up?”

“He bombed a test today!” 9-year-old Mari blurted. “And now he’s sad.”

Lucas slouched in his chair and sighed.

Oh, crap. Did he completely fail it? “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.

Turns out, he’d gotten an 80% on a math test. A low “B.” And he was beside himself.

His interim report from a few weeks before was all A’s — the first time he’d ever gotten all A’s. He’d worked hard to get to that point, struggling his entire childhood against his ADHD. When his interim came in, his dad and I heaped praise on him for his tenacity. The praise, that kind of praise anyway, was new for him. It was pure praise — not the “Hon, if you hadn’t forgotten to turn assignments in, your grades could have been even better!” he’d been used to hearing. Now that he’d finally had a taste of what it felt like to earn all A’s and hear that lavish, unqualified, no-buts praise, the thought of going back to how things were before caused him major anxiety.

The thing is, this 80% didn’t even have to stay an 80%. His teacher gives half credit for answers that are resubmitted correctly with all the work shown and an explanation of how they got the answer. So after corrections he would end up with a 90%. An ‘A.’

But he was still so upset over it. He worried that this slightly lower grade could be the start of a streak of lower grades and he’d lose the straight-A title.

As parents, it’s easy to forget how stressful school can be. How it intensifies with each grade level. These kids are blasted daily with how important it is to be their very best self, and also better than others, because the competition for getting into college — with financial assistance — is more cut-throat every passing year.

And what happens when they finally get to college? All that hard work has paid off, right? Well… they’re in, but the pressure has only just begun. Just as they leave the familiar surroundings and people they’ve known for so long. Not only must they adjust to the new environment of college, but the demands of independence hit some like a Mack truck (“How do you work a washing machine again, Mom??”). They’re often trying to fit in with a completely new social group who may have different standards than they’re used to. And after all those years of stressing over getting into college and getting the financial aid package they wanted, what if they screw it all up?

The transition to college can be incredibly stressful, and for some kids, the stress spirals into depression. 15-25% of college students will suffer from depression, and 75% of mental health issues arise before the age of 24. This Thanksgiving, first-year college students will return home to spend time with their families. If they don’t make it for Thanksgiving, they’ll likely come home for Christmas. John F. Greden, MD, Founder and Executive Director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, says these early breaks are the perfect time for parents to check in with their kids about mental health issues.

Parents should make sure their kids understand the difference between everyday stress and mental health issues that require professional help. An example of an everyday problem, says Dr. Greden, is fighting with a roommate or friend, or doing poorly on an exam. Prolonged feelings of sadness and hopelessness or pulling away from friends and family are some signs of larger issues.

I know my son Lucas is not depressed. He was upset over a single grade. But that’s the thing… it was ONE grade. He put so much pressure on himself. I made sure to loop back with him and talk about how proud I was for his EFFORT. It’s not about the grades. We don’t expect perfection from him and he doesn’t have to expect it of himself either. I want to encourage Lucas to learn to manage stress in healthy ways now — starting by understanding that it’s effort, not perfection, that matters. I don’t want him to put so much pressure on himself that he winds up being part of the 15-25% of college students who suffer from depression.

Dr. Greden recommends online tools to use as check-ins for our kids. Set to Go teaches teens skills for managing stress as they transition from high school to college. Online screenings like this one from the University of Michigan or these online mental health tools can empower teens and young adults to advocate for themselves by assessing their own needs, planning around their stress triggers, and perhaps most importantly, knowing when to ask for help. Bookmark these tools so they’re handy for whenever you or your teen has a question or concern about their mental health.

And now I want to ask for your help – though there’s something potentially in it for you too. Med-IQ is conducting an anonymous survey and would appreciate your input. The survey, which includes additional education on this topic, will take less than 15 minutes to complete. Survey responses are shared only in aggregate. Your responses to these survey questions will provide Med-IQ with important information about your experiences with depression and mental health in your college-aged child, which will help us develop future educational initiatives.

CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE SURVEY

Once you’ve completed the survey, you will have the option of providing your email address to be entered into a drawing administered by SOMA Strategies to win 1 of 10 $100 VISA gift cards. If you choose to enter, your email address will not be sold, kept, or stored; email addresses are used only to randomly draw the winners and notify them of their prize.

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I’ve written about this today as part of a partnership with Med-IQ to encourage parents of college-age kids to check in with their students returning home from college. Med-IQ is an accredited medical education company that provides an exceptional educational experience for physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals.

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