I don’t know about you, but my social media feeds are full of parents dropping their fresh-faced teenagers off at colleges around the country. In a few weeks time, once the novelty of no parental supervision wears off, homesickness will invariably grip college freshmen. Here’s what parents and students need to know about homesickness and mental health in college campuses.
Mental health providers would classify it as an adjustment disorder which can include symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.
Why does this happen?
Because moving away is a huge deal. In many cases, college is the first time that these young people are fully separated from their families, friends, pets, communities, etc. for an extended period of time. There’s a loss of familiarity, and this leads to sadness, isolation, changes to appetite and sleep, regret, fatigue – all signs of depression. Then, there’s the added challenge of growing accustomed to increased academic expectations and time management of academic, work, personal tasks (i.e. cooking, cleaning, laundry), and trying to make and maintain new friendships. Even kids that move away from tough homes can experience homesickness.
What should you be looking for?
- Not talking about new friends they’ve made or isn’t making plans with friends
- Hasn’t become involved in on-campus activities
- Drastic changes (+/-) in weight and/or eating habits
- Change of demeanor from the way they were before (e.g. was cheerful and outgoing, but now sullen, withdrawn, doesn’t smile) *This one’s tricky because seasonal patterns and hours of daylight can play a role. Important when the student moved from a sunny, warm climate to a dark, colder climate.*
- Overwhelmed with academic demands
- Ask them what they’re doing for fun and how they’re managing their time
- Isolation, refusal to leave room, odd speech, confusion, paranoia, and deterioration of personal appearance and hygiene. These are signs of a condition on the schizophrenic spectrum, when typically begin to manifest in late teens and early 20s.
What can make homesickness better?
- Maintaining regular contact with family members that recognize and validate these feelings and provide encouragement
- Making new friends in college and establishing a ‘friend family’ that is supportive of each other
- Live on-campus
- Get involved with organizations or clubs on campus
- Talk to a roommate or RA
- Exercise and eat healthy
- Seek help at the student counseling center
- Walk around and get familiar with the campus and surrounding areas, and find places you like to spend time
What can make homesickness worse?
- Encouraging returning home frequently
- Parents over-verbalizing how much they miss their student. It’s okay to tell them they are missed, but frequent statements like, “The house just isn’t the same without you,” makes it much harder on the student.
- Parents verbalizing all the things they’re doing now that the student is gone (i.e. redecorating/repurposing the student’s room, traveling, etc). Don’t send the message, “Things are more fun and exciting now that you’re gone.”
- Isolating and not participating/socializing with peers
What parents can do to help them cope?
- Care packages with a taste of home are very helpful.
- Stay in contact with phone calls and/or Skype or FaceTime.
- Encourage homesick students to go to the college’s student counseling center or speak with an RA
- Help (don’t do it for) them plan their week and set small social goals, and then follow up with them later on to see how it went.
- Remind your student that you believe in them and their abilities. Offer a story from their past that illustrates their strength of character and resilience.
What if the homesickness isn’t getting any better?
Most cases of homesickness will clear up after about a year (2 semesters) once the student makes friends and establishes themselves in their new community. However, if they continue to struggle after a year, then it may be time to consider other options. Talk to the college’s academic advisors, registrar and financial aid office to weigh the available options and impact these might have.
Exploring other options is often difficult for parents. They invested time and money to make this college a possibility for their child. Some live vicariously through their children and resent that their kid is walking away from that ‘dream’ school. Others don’t understand why their kid can just suck it up and soldier on for the next 4 years. All this does is add more stress shame the student for having struggled. Instead, such a situation is an opportunity for parents to normalize failure and struggle, and express their unconditional love and support despite the way this experience turned out.
If you want to learn more about the mental health on college campuses, check out the articles below from Psychology Today. They’re well written and accurately reflect the work I performed as a psychologist for a large university’s student counseling center.
The College Student Mental Health Crisis
The College Mental Health Crisis: Focus on Overall Wellbeing
Rethinking the College Mental Health Crisis
We hope that you’ll share this article with someone that you know that’s struggling with homesickness. By all means, use the share buttons to share this post with a college student or soon-to-be empty nester parents. Awareness and communication are the best front-line tools. Feel free to call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult if we can support you or a loved one.