Helping Your College Student Prioritize Mental Health

By Andrew Bryan

It’s college drop-off season. Amidst the celebration of accomplishments, know that today’s true picture of college life is not always rosy. According to Inside Higher Ed, “College students are experiencing all-time high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality…the highest rates in the survey’s 15-year history.” College can be a challenging time for emerging young adults for those who have dealt with mental health issues in the past and for those who haven’t. 

As an educational consultant with 30+ years of experience working with adolescents and young adults, I have seen this issue increase over time. I have also coached countless families on transitioning from high school to and through college, including working with students on gap year choices, if they and their parents feel like that is their best option. College brings a slew of changes, which can be stressful, and stress is a known trigger of mental illness. During this transition, changes in sleep, exercise, diet, and possible alcohol/drug use, can create a perfect storm for mental health issues to arise or reoccur. Talking proactively with your college student can help them intentionally manage these four foundational areas with the aim to help them prioritize their mental health. 


Sleep is a fundamental pillar of both physical and mental well-being. Getting too much or too little sleep can be a precipitating factor in the onset of mental illness as there is a two-way relationship between sleep problems and poor mental health. According to Columbia University, “sleep problems can also contribute to the onset and worsening of different mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.”  

College life often disrupts established sleep patterns, with late-night gatherings and irregular schedules becoming the norm. The rule of not going out on a school night is moot. Encouraging your child to strike a balance in their new lifestyle is crucial. While they may not achieve a consistent eight hours of sleep every night, aiming for an average of eight hours per night throughout the week can help mitigate sleep-related mental health issues. If insomnia becomes an issue, resources such as Big Retired Life’s The Profound Power of Sleep post can provide valuable guidance.


When your child was in high school, they most likely participated in some sort of daily activity on their own, through team sports or even a PE class. In college, unless they are a college athlete, their exercise levels may drop off precipitously. 

According to The Primary Care Companion article, “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.” 

At college, there are a number of barriers to exercise. One is that most university gyms are incredibly crowded. Another limiting factor is that your child may be in a completely new environment that is more humid, cooler, and at higher elevations than they are accustomed to at home. Work with your college student to overcome any challenges and map how and where they will get enough exercise. In general, they need 20 minutes a day, including a mix of aerobic, strength-building, and flexibility. 


A growing body of research connects mental health and diet. Based on the fact that a ketogenic diet has been used as treatment with over 100 years of evidence of efficacy in epilepsy, Dave and Jan Bazucki, founders of Metabolic Mind, have been funding cutting-edge research where “metabolic interventions like ketogenic diet will be used to treat not only serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder but other conditions like binge eating disorder, anorexia, alcohol use disorder, migraine, ADHD, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, dementia and more.” 

With home-cooked meals no longer available, your college student must understand the role diet plays in their mental health. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is laden with sugar and complex carbohydrates and is causing metabolic dysfunction. Encourage your college student to eat more protein. It can be as simple as substituting eggs for a muffin at breakfast. These healthy choices will make a difference over time. 

Alcohol and substance abuse: 

Alcohol and other substances are a staple on college campuses, with nearly 80% of college students partaking. If your college student is experiencing mental health issues, they may turn to these substances as a form of self-medication. Prolonged, consistent use of alcohol and other substances can lead to addiction. If your child is taking medication for their mental health, alcohol and drugs can be more complicated with serious outcomes. There is a high prevalence of co-occurrence between substance use disorders and other mental illnesses. Having both is called a dual diagnosis and is much harder to treat than having a single diagnosis. Encourage your college student to engage with moderation and know their limits. 

College is a transformative period filled with new experiences, challenges, and opportunities for personal growth. As a parent, your role in nurturing your college student’s mental well-being is vital. By addressing sleep, exercise, diet, and the risks of self-medication, you can empower your child to navigate these challenges successfully, ensuring their college journey is academically enriching and mentally healthy. Open communication and support are key to helping your college student thrive.

Andrew Bryan is an independent educational consultant specializing in orchestrating and implementing transitional planning and support for adolescents and young adults who have experienced emotional, behavioral, and/or learning challenges. The core of Andrew’s work is to help “emerging” young adults discover their purpose through mentoring, career assessment and guidance, and international treks and pilgrimages. His educational consulting and mentoring model is based on the premise that people learn basic life skills through positive interaction with the world around them. He is based in Boise, Idaho.

Throughout the “Sandwich Years” section of this blog, we will provide you support for launching children into adulthood while caring for aging parents.

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