Signs of Depression in College Students

Things change once teens graduate from high school and sometimes those changes can impact their mental state. Here's how to identify signs of depression in college students, plus how to help.

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The days of happy-time high school are over for your teen. From stress levels and weight struggles to GPAs and roommate fights, he’s now facing some not-so-fun real-world struggles while away at school – and he might not be so willing to talk about them when he comes home for the holidays.

What signs of depression in college students can you look for that will clue you in?

We called on Dan Vander Hill to find out. He’s the assistant vice president of student development and learning at Spring Arbor University – a private liberal-arts school west of Washtenaw County that opened a Southfield center in 2014 – and helps handle all the stuff that might affect students on campus, outside of the classroom.

Sure signs. Watch out for eating and sleep habits that may not have been present before your kid left for school. Falling grades may be another hint. Just be aware your young adult may not always be willing to talk to you. “Kids, when they go to college, are hoping to be more independent,” Vander Hill says. “They may feel as though they need to handle it on their own, or could feel embarrassed to tell you.”

Parent approach. Be available for your kids if they want to talk, and always offer suggestions instead of barking orders. Also, avoid tension by treating them as independent adults. They have been making their own decisions and schedules since they left for college, Vander Hill points out.

Relationships 101. Remind kids college relationships aren’t forever. For instance, their roommate doesn’t need to be their best friend; in fact, Vander Hill says kids shouldn’t expect their roomie to be a life-long pal. “That’s too much pressure to have for someone,” he says. Instead, he recommends parents support kids in fostering a healthy expectation of having a “respectful relationship.” As far as romantic relationships, Vander Hill suggests kids balance – and go slow. “It takes time to look for compatibility. Don’t worry about moving too fast.”

Plug in to support. Encourage kids to take advantage of resources available on many college campuses. Whether it’s help with time management, stress or career path, most campuses offer counselors and other more-experienced students to help younger students navigate campus life. If they’re feeling homesick, “Just remind them of their goals and all the good things that come with the school,” Vander Hill says. And if you notice they’re starting in on the dreaded “Freshman 15” pounds, he says, be gentle in your approach – and encourage them to check out healthy food alternatives on campus too.

Money matters. It’s a big source of worry, especially with loans in the mix. Still, you may notice kids with designer clothes or technology they might not need. Explain the benefits of smart spending. Budgeting is a huge – and tricky – skill to learn. If needed, “Sit down with someone that understands about loans and talk with them,” Vander Hill says. Be frank. Remind kids that loans must be paid back, and revisit needs vs. desires. And, if expenses are an ongoing problem, a part-time job might be in their forecast for 2017.

This post was originally published in 2014 and is updated regularly.

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