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Information for Parents: Helping a College Student with an Anxiety Disorder (page 2)

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

What are the consequences of not treating an anxiety disorder in a college student?

Serious consequences can result when anxiety disorders in college students go unrecognized and untreated. These students may isolate themselves from their peers, have difficulty in their classes or drop out of school completely. In fact, panic disorder is frequently cited as a top reason for women dropping out of college.

If left untreated, anxiety disorders can also lead to the development of secondary conditions such as depression and substance abuse. The good news is that research shows early intervention for an anxiety disorder can prevent the onset of depression and other secondary conditions.

In extreme cases, students with anxiety disorders may attempt suicide. Studies suggest that several symptoms of anxiety disorders, including severe anxiety, panic attacks, agitation and insomnia, are predictors of suicidal behavior. Two anxiety disorders - panic disorder and agoraphobia - are specifically associated with increased risks of suicidal ideation and attempts. This makes it crucial for parents to pay attention to the fears and anxieties their child is expressing when he/she calls home. Tips for helping a child who you think may be experiencing anxieties beyond those that are part of the normal college transition are included later in this piece.

What barriers prevent college students from seeking help?

Stigma, embarrassment, not knowing their symptoms are treatable or where to turn for help, "self-medication" with drugs and/or alcohol, and financial concerns regarding treatment can all be roadblocks to seeking help. Parents can be an essential resource for educating their child on how and where to find help in the face of such barriers. Some tips for parents are included in the next section.

What can a parent do to help their college student with an anxiety disorder?

It can be difficult for a parent to know how to help and what their role is once a child leaves for college. However, parental support is extremely important for college students, especially those who may be dealing with an anxiety disorder. Below are tips for helping your child.

  • Be an active listener - lend an open ear when you child is feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Listen to what he or she says, as well as to what is not said (i.e., is there no mention of friends, social activities, etc?). Respect his or her feelings even if you don't understand exactly what he/she is going through. This will encourage your child to start talking and serve as a source of comfort when he or she is feeling overwhelmed.
  • Educate yourself about the differences between normal stress and anxiety versus an anxiety disorder - this will help you learn what to listen and look for.
  • Encourage participation in social, sports and other extracurricular activities - these can help to relieve stress, assist young people in making new friends and build self-esteem.
  • Explore opportunities for seeking help - if you think anxiety is affecting your child's daily life, investigate what mental health and other treatment options are available on campus and in the local community. Call the counseling center to inquire about the availability of individual counseling sessions, group counseling, support groups and referrals to local off-campus centers, and the payment issues surrounding the use of these resources (many schools offer these for free or reduced cost). If your child is still on your insurance, find out what kind of mental health coverage is available.
  • Share what you find with your child - once you've accumulated information about getting help, pass it along. Having the information available will give your child the option to get help when he or she feels ready.
  • Be patient if your child doesn't seek help right away - sometimes it takes a while for a person to take the first step. It's important especially for teenagers that they feel treatment is their decision.
  • Provide your child with resources that let them know that he or she is not alone and can be helped - the ADAA college program Got Anxiety? provides young people with information on anxiety disorders; how to manage stress and anxiety; personal stories from college students; treatment options for anxiety disorders; and a variety of other resources. Visit www.gotanxiety.org for more information.
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