Photograph by Jamie Betts

How to be supportive

May 21, 2022

Wellbeing

Peter LeViness is the dad of two college graduates and the director of UR’s Counseling and Psychological Services. Here are his tips for supporting the mental health needs of the college student in your life.
By Cheryl Spain
The best approach we can take is to help them think through the pros and cons.

1. Destigmatize mental health help.

It’s important to let your student know that it’s OK to ask for help. Data show that “[d]ecades of normalizing seeking mental health care” is a significant factor driving an increase in demand at university counseling centers as more and more college students seek mental health services for reasons such as anxiety, stress, and depression. According to LeViness, roughly 25% of UR students seek out counseling services each year. “Every day, people need it,” he says.

2. Resist giving unsolicited advice. 

Telling someone what to do can prompt them to take and defend the opposite stance. “Even if someone’s struggling with their mental health, the best approach we can take is to help them think through the pros and cons of reaching out and point them in the direction of the resources that might be available where they are,” he says.

3. Let their dean know about your concerns.

If you’re worried about your child’s mental health, let their dean’s office know. “The dean might say the very same things you want to say as a parent, but it may be received much differently coming from the dean than from a family member,” he says. The dean can also help connect your student with the counseling center.

4. Identify resources outside of campus.

“Few colleges and universities can provide long-term weekly care for students,” he says. If your student needs long-term care, help them find resources in the local community or encourage them to stay connected remotely with a provider back home, if possible. 

5. Encourage regular physical activity.

Sustained, long-term stress has a cumulative negative effect on the mind and body. Physical activity helps reduce that stress. “If we have regular outlets for physical activity, we’re able to ratchet down stress levels and recover from a stressful event faster,” he says. He urges students to carve out at least three time blocks weekly for physical activity.

6. Encourage building a social network.

Finding one’s social niche is a central concern of most students during the first few semesters. “Extroverted students naturally think of ways to do that. I worry most about our introverted, less assertive students,” he says. Encourage your student to take small steps — join a club or organization or participate in an activity they enjoy — so they’re around people who share a common interest.

7. Support time off when needed.

Sophomore year can be especially difficult for some students as the newness of college wears off. If your student is struggling, be open to a leave of absence. “Not everyone has to do college in four successive years,” he says. Forcing your student to remain in school when unmotivated can have long-term repercussions, but time away from school shouldn’t be idle. Insist your student remain productive, such as by taking a job; it might expedite their return to college.