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Ask The Experts

How to Help From Afar?


I have a son away at college and he is battling depression. We have noticed he is not eating and cannot sleep. Who do we contact to get him some help?

John Irvine, Ed.D., Director, Department of Counseling and Student Development at New Mexico State University answers:

Noticing changes in your child’s behavior is a healthy first step to finding them the help they need. Certainly the eating and sleep symptoms are cause for concern, as are other symptoms such as loss of interest and pleasure in activities and others. The primary concern about depression is suicide. While it may feel uncomfortable, it is really is important to ask about any thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

In responding to the answer, remember to listen without judgment, share your concern for them, and never ever dismiss or minimize any suicidal thoughts. Being able to help your student when they are living at home is challenging enough – when they are far away it is that much more difficult. Most counseling centers on campuses would be happy to consult with you about options and strategies, and in my experience parents find that very helpful. At times students can become overly zealous in exercising their new autonomy and parents’ ability to control is greatly diminished. A visit can be a positive and supportive effort although at times the student may be opposed and respecting their wishes versus more assertive intervention can be a tough call.

Try to find a balance between accepting the fact that they are official adults yet still unfinished in that process. Getting help will depend on the services available at his school or in the nearby community. If you can’t find the school’s counseling services on the school’s website or with a quick phone call, contact the Dean of Students or Vice President of Student Services. Many schools have very professional centers with qualified staff. You will be welcome to ask questions about center accreditation, staff licensure, medical/psychiatric support, costs and extent of services offered.

Often the challenge is getting the student through the door and face to face with a staff person. Going with them can be an excellent solution if distance and relationships makes that possible. Sometimes friends, advisors, housing staff, or faculty can make the suggestion or walk them in. So how do you get them to take the leap? Acknowledge that it may be a difficult step to take, recognize that the student likely has ambivalent feelings about asking for help. Ask if they think there might be some positives from coming in – students don’t want to feel bad, they want to be successful, and the importance of knowing they have your support can hardly be understated. If they are reluctant, ask them to try it as a favor for you, or as an experiment, usually at no cost. Make sure they know it is confidential. Sometimes students feel freer seeing a physician rather than a counselor. This might be a good first step, but we know that the best interventions for depression combine both medical and counseling services. If the tactful methods fail, the pressure may have to be raised. Even going in to counseling reluctantly is better than not going at all.