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Information for Parents: Helping a College Student with an Anxiety Disorder

— Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Updated on Feb 15, 2011

College is a stressful time for almost all students. Getting along with roommates, dealing with new social pressures, being exposed to alcohol or drugs, managing finances, meeting academic demands - all while being away from home for the first time and without familiar sources of support - can leave many students feeling overwhelmed, confused and stressed out. While much of the stress and anxiety that college students experience is normal and even healthy, some will experience chronic, relentless anxiety that may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. In fact, according to a new study from the ADAA, colleges and universities across the country are seeing a major increase in students requiring mental health services for anxiety disorders. Some students may have experienced symptoms before college that became worse upon leaving home, while others may be experiencing such symptoms for the first time (the college years are often when mental health problems such as anxiety disorders manifest themselves).

Whatever the case, it is important for college students - and their parents - to understand the symptoms, available treatment options and ways to find help for an anxiety disorder. Because of the unique changes and challenges that college students experience, leaving an anxiety disorder untreated during this crucial time in their lives can have serious consequences on their futures. This makes it of the utmost importance for students with an anxiety disorder to be treated for their condition. Read on to learn more about recognizing - and finding help for - an anxiety disorder in your college-aged child.

What is an anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders are a unique group of illnesses that fill people's lives with persistent, excessive and unreasonable anxiety, worry and fear. They include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder (SAD) and specific phobias. Although anxiety disorders are serious medical conditions, they are treatable.

How common are anxiety disorders in college students?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in children, adolescents and adults. 40 million American adults - over 18 percent of the population - suffer from an anxiety disorder each year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), almost 75 percent of those with an anxiety disorder will experience their first episode before they are 22 years old, making awareness of these disorders among college-aged students and their parents essential.

For many of the individual anxiety disorders, the age of onset often falls during the college years. The median age of onset for OCD is 19, agoraphobia is 20, and PTSD is 23 years of age.

What special circumstances exist for college students with anxiety disorders?

As mentioned above, students are faced with emotional, physical, financial and other life changes during college. While the stress of these events do not cause anxiety disorders, they can serve to make the symptoms of an anxiety disorder worse or can trigger an anxiety disorder in someone who is pre-disposed.

In addition to these challenges, many aspects of a student's lifestyle changes once he or she is away from home - which can also affect his or her mental health. Unhealthy and irregular eating and lack of adequate sleep - along with increased use of caffeine - can exacerbate anxiety problems. Alcohol and substance use - extremely common among college students - may trigger anxiety symptoms and panic attacks, interfere with medication a student may be taking for anxiety or lead a student to alter the use of his/her medication as he/she sees fit (i.e., "I want to drink tonight, so I'm not going to take my medication"). This can be a dangerous habit. Parents should help educate students about the effects their lifestyles can have on their anxiety disorder, as well as the complex issues surrounding anxiety disorders and alcohol/substance use.

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