New survey of parents provides an important voice in college student mental health
Stewarding the emotional and behavioral health of America’s college students involves a number of stakeholders, including their parents.
Parents, particularly those of students at four-year, residential colleges and universities, more often than not participate in their children’s admission choices, pay their tuition, and help them navigate what is often their first time away from home.
Like it or not, many of today’s college student parents are highly engaged with their students while they are away at school, which can make them important partners in supporting student mental health.
Yet despite their outsize role, parents have been an under-examined constituent group in this area, leading to misinformation, misunderstand and perhaps, lost opportunity.
To get a better understanding of the attitudes, awareness and expectations of college student parents as it relates to mental health on their students’ campuses, the Mary Christie Foundation, with funding from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, commissioned a poll of over 1,000 parents of students between the ages of 18 -25 at residential colleges throughout the country.
“Supporting Student Mental Health: Parents’ Perspectives,” provides a glimpse into how much parents know, and want to know, about their students’ mental health while at college; how aware they are of their campus’ mental health resources; and how concerned they are about the issue overall.
“As we seek to more fully engage the challenges facing our young people and better support their emotional and behavioral health, understanding the perspective of parents is a critical factor,” said Georgetown President John J. DeGioia.
“Our students are with us at a unique moment in their lives and we recognize there is a distinctive role for colleges and universities to continue and contribute to this important work, strengthening the pool of resources available, and building campus communities that support their ability to flourish.”
The report was released following a national convening, co-hosted by the Mary Christie Foundation and Georgetown University, where 30 college and university presidents came together to engage with topics and policies related to student behavioral health.
Concern and an Unclear Picture
The nationally representative survey, conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, found that engaged parents have significant levels of concern but may have misconceptions about key factors in college student mental health regarding disclosure, accountability, and campus resources. 77% of parents called mental health a very or somewhat serious problem on college campuses and a majority said that access to mental health services was an important factor in the college selection process.
Over half of parents (52%) say that access to mental health resources were important when choosing a school, with 24% saying it was very important. This is a particular priority for parents of children with mental health conditions, 70% of whom say access to mental health resources was important – 37% saying “very important.”
Like their students, college student parents are increasingly more diverse with differing perspectives that were reflected in the variances within the report. Parents of color, parents of students with a recognized diagnosis and parents of students from lower income levels have unique concerns that translate into valuable knowledge for those on campus who seek to support all of our students.
The survey found that 50 percent of parents with children who have a mental health condition rate their child’s mental health as more concerning than any other category listed including their GPA, how much they enjoyed school and alcohol use on campus.
Concern is also as high or higher among parents of students of color, though their worries about mental health are rivaled by their concern about race relations on campus.
For parents of Black students, 67% say they see mental health as a problem while 69% say they are very or somewhat concerned about race relations on campus.
Parents of all students frequently are under the impression that a robust set of resources are already in place on college campuses. The reality is many schools are engaging with a complex set of challenges, including issues of funding and staffing, to adequately address the full range of student mental health concerns.
“Schools vary significantly in the array and volume of mental health services they are able to provide to students yet often parents assume that their students will receive the help they need,” said Dr. John Howe, President of the Mary Christie Foundation. “This is often not the case, certainly when it comes to accessing counseling services on campus.”
Close Ties and High Expectations
Parents describe close relationships with their students with a significant majority of them saying they know more or the same about their child’s mental health since they went to college, indicating they are on top of these concerns even after their children have left home.
87% say they know at least a fair amount about their children’s mental health since starting school.
On average, 70% of parents polled agreed that when it comes to mental health, it is important to be informed of their child’s wellbeing – of those with children with a current mental health condition, 95% believe so.
Only 23% of parents say that it is important for students to have their privacy protected. Variances exist by school size, with 72% of parents with students attending small schools wanting information about their student’s mental health in all cases – compared to 32% of parents whose children attend the largest schools.
As the report points out, these expectations do not match up with the current law.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits schools from revealing confidential information about students, except in certain cases, making navigating how and when to involve parents difficult for administrators.
Students have an option to waive these restrictions and many schools encourage parents to talk to their students about this option.
“The college years present a challenging developmental stage for both students and parents,” said Dr. Zoe Ragouzeous, Executive Director of the Counseling and Wellness Services at New York University.
“In many cases, parents can be instrumental partners in their student’s mental health but our first responsibility is to the students in distress and we must abide by their choices.”
The poll also reflects ambiguity about who is responsible for monitoring and reporting mental health issues.
According to the report, 68% of parents say they are most responsible for monitoring and reporting their student’s mental health, indicating they see themselves as the first line of defense.
But around 1/3 of parents expect that other groups of university employees are taking on some level of responsibility for student mental health, including faculty.
“What this poll tells us is that a substantial portion of parents see responsibility extending to campus staff in a way that carries the potential to cause misunderstanding or conflict,” said Steve Koczela, author of the report and president of the MassINC Polling Group.
Communication and Clarity
“Supporting Student Mental Health: Parents’ Perspectives” gives us a snapshot of an increasingly important set of stakeholders.
Some key takeaways for colleges and universities include providing ample, clear communication between school and home about mental health services and access to them; making sure parents and students are aware of the laws and opportunities around health care disclosure; and engaging more campus community members in the school’s effort to support student behavioral health and wellbeing.