Grandparents Worry about Depression and Anxiety in College Students

grandmother and grandson at kitchen table

Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

My husband and I are grandparents with grandchildren in college. Although they appear to be handling their experiences fine, we are becoming alarmed by the many articles in the media about the increase in anxiety, depression, and suicides among college students.

One of our friends who has similar concerns about this news sent me a link to some podcasts exploring the reasons for the sharp increase in anxiety and depression. We found the podcasts very informative and we want to share this link with your readers.

In addition, we thought you may also be able to share other resources and suggestions specifically geared to grandparents with college-age grandchildren who are concerned about increasing mental health challenges on campuses.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

Your concern about increasing rates of depression and suicides among college students is warranted. The statistics are alarming!

“According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), the suicide rate among young adults ages 15–24 has tripled since the 1950s, and suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students [unintentional accidental deaths remain the leading cause] …

        In a recent study published in Depression and Anxiety of more than 67,000 college students from more than 100 institutions, one in five students have had thoughts of suicide, with 9% making an attempt and nearly 20% reporting self-injury. One in four students reported being diagnosed with a mental illness.”

A critical first step in trying to address the problems of depression, anxiety, and depression among college students is to arm oneself with information about possible causes, solutions, and treatments. The WGBH series you recommend, available in both written and video formats, is an excellent resource. Other resources include: [1], [2], and [3].

Beyond a doubt, many grandparents can play important roles in their college-age grandchildren’s lives. I reference a column I wrote few months ago, “How Grandparents Can Help Their College-Bound Grandkids”, containing suggestions for how grandparents can be helpful before, during, and after their grandchildren’s college experiences. Some of those suggestions may be useful in staying connected so that grandparents can be a frontline resource, should their grandkids face difficulties.

Be a Frontline Resource

To be a frontline resource means that you have signed up to be immediately available if called upon. I encourage grandparents who are trying to position themselves as a frontline resource to their grandchildren who are headed to, or are already in college, that they, the grandparents that is, should try to make decisions that respect the wishes of the parents. This entails understanding the kinds of parent-grandparent relationships in place.

For example, some grandparents will:

1. Inform their grandchildren and their parents how they, the grandparents, plan to be an available resource. This is a more typical approach when the parent-grandparent relationships have a history of independent actions taken by the grandparents, actions that are encouraged by the parents.

2. Ask permission from the parents to put together a suggested plan for their involvement. This is a more typical approach when the parents have made it clear that they will request, and perhaps define, grandparents’ involvement on an as-needed basis.

3. Not get involved at all, either by their choice, or because doing so would cross boundaries explicitly set by the parents.

4. Wait until their grandchildren reach the age of majority (18 in most states), at which time grandchildren are considered adults and can have whatever relationship with their grandparents that they chose. That said, trying to maintain good relationships with the parents should still be the goal, even though the parents can no longer legally deny the grandparents access to the grandchildren.

How to Be a Frontline Resource

There are several specific actions grandparents can take to be a frontline resource in the event that their grandchildren in college run into any difficulties or challenges. The practicality of each depends on your grandchildren’s comfort levels, as well as on your availability and finances.

There are several specific actions grandparents can take to be a frontline resource in the event that their grandchildren in college run into any difficulties or challenges. The practicality of each depends on your grandchildren’s comfort levels, as well as on your availability and finances.

  • Let them know that you have been familiarizing yourselves about the challenges that college students face regarding their mental health by reading articles and watching videos.
  • Explain that you want to be a frontline resource and what that means: that you are available 24×7 to them, and/or their roommates or friends, to listen, advise, and in some cases, take action.
  • Remind them that reaching out for help, for either themselves, or for someone else, can be a tough call, but doing so is the right thing to do, and it can be life-transforming, or even lifesaving.
  • Ask your grandchildren if you might visit them on campus to take them, and possibly some of their roommates and/or friends, out to dinner. Ask if you can share your contact information with them with a proviso that then can contact you at any time, for any reason.
  • If you’re going to be on campus, ask your grandchildren if they would be comfortable with you meeting their RA (dormitory residence assistant) and giving him/her your contact information.
  • Emphasize to your grandchildren that just in case they, or someone else, find themselves in an emergency situation, they need to have on their phones the numbers for their RA, college security/campus police, counseling and psychological services.
  • Ask them if they have suggestions for ways you can be a good frontline resource. (My own college-bound grandson made a suggestion. It is shared here with his permission: “After grandparents let it be known that they are a frontline resource, then they shouldn’t push it.”)

Additional Considerations

These suggestions for grandparental involvement are not meant to replace parental involvement. Helping college students deal with mental health issues effectively needs to be the goal, and depending on the circumstances, college students may feel their parents or grandparents, either together, or separately, can provide them the help they need for a particular situation, at a particular time.

The ideal situation is that the parents wholeheartedly approve of the grandparents being a frontline resource for the grandchildren, but if that approval is not forthcoming, the grandparents may elect to help their grandchildren without that approval and suffer the consequences of fractured parent-grandparent relationships. Most college students are of majority age, so it will be up to them to decide whom to contact in times of need.

Finally, as a grandparent, you may never be called upon in your role as a frontline resource. For many grandchildren, just knowing you are available may be enough: Your grandchildren make take comfort in and strength from merely knowing you are always on call.

mother breaking bad news
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