This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
When news broke in March that Stanford senior and soccer star Katie Meyer, 22, died by suicide, it was a gut punch for parents who understood what Katie's mother Gina meant when she said she was living "a parent's worst nightmare" in her interview with NBC News' Stephanie Gosk on TODAY.
A month later, University of Wisconsin-Madison track and field star Sarah Shulze died by suicide.
“We suddenly and tragically lost our dear Sarah on Wednesday, April 13. She was surrounded by her loving family,” her parents posted on April 15.
The statement continued, “Sarah took her own life. Balancing athletics, academics and the demands of every day life overwhelmed her in a single, desperate moment.”
Gina Meyer told Gosk she and Katie's father had no red flags leading up to her death and that she had been in good spirits on FaceTime with them just hours before.
Katie's and Sarah's deaths leave questions about what parents need to know about mental health support on campuses and how they can support their children at college, particularly now that college students seem to be struggling more than ever.
According to the most recent Healthy Minds Institute data report from winter of 2021, 41% of college student respondents reported moderate or major depression, and 13% reported having had suicidal ideation in the previous year.
We asked experts in the mental health and higher education fields to weigh in with answers about what parents can do.
1. Start working on self advocacy skills early
Think about the skills people need in college before your children get to college, Myrna Hernández, Vice President of Student Affairs at the College of Wooster in Ohio, told TODAY Parents. "While they are still in high school, figure out whatever it is your child is dealing with, whether it's academic, mental health, or anxiety," she suggested.
"Then start building their self-advocacy skills," she said. "Ask them, 'What so you want to do about that, and how are you going to accomplish it?'" Hernández said those kinds of "training wheel exercises" while they are still in high school can be really important later when students need to be able to speak up for themselves.
2. Ask about mental health resources
When touring college campuses, parents and students should ask about mental health services the same way they would ask about meal plans or internship opportunities, experts said — even if their students have never needed mental health support in the past.
Know who to contact if there are issues. Know where the student health center is. Know how to find mental health help, and make sure your college kids knows too. At Wooster, for example, Hernández said the school has an "early alert system" in the form of their college "Care Team" made up of students, faculty, and staff members who can follow up if someone alerts them with concerns about a student.
Wooster offers counseling services through their student wellness center, but Hernández noted that those services might have a wait time. She said Wooster and most colleges and universities also have emergency mental health support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week — which is important for students to know.
Other questions to ask colleges: How long do students typically wait to see a counselor? How many sessions are they given before they must seek help outside the university? What kind of support does the university provide if they do need to find a private mental health provider?
3. Consider legal release forms
What many parents do not realize is that once kids are older than 18, privacy laws limit colleges in what they can communicate to parents about their students’ mental health.
In some cases, parents might want to submit signed documents from their students giving the college have more freedom to tell them if their children suffer a medical issue on campus, either mental or physical. These forms might include medical and/or financial power of attorney as well as HIPAA releases.
"If a student welcomes this, it’s not a crazy thing to have, just in case,” said Dr. Sarah Cain Spannagel, a licensed clinical psychologist and faculty member at Case Western Reserve University.
“My mom sent me to college with a Tupperware with things like a small sewing kit inside of it,” Spannagel noted. “Did I use any of those things? No. They sat in a storage block in the corner of my dorm room. But I had them if I needed them; and this is really no different, if it makes sense to everyone involved.”
4. Talk about mental health and have a plan
When a child goes away to college, the dynamic between them and their parents will change, said Hernández — and communication is important.
Once a student has been on campus for a few weeks, "Ask them, 'Who, besides your friends, is supporting you?'" she said. "Make sure they can point to someone. Even just one connection, like a coach or a professor or someone in the academic resource center is enough, but they need to be connected to someone."
For students who have had mental health support in their hometown, a "forthright plan for continuity of care" is also critical, said Spannagel, and not just in terms of counseling or medication.
"Whatever your child's self care is at home, that needs to go with them somehow to college," she said. "If they have a gym membership at home and working out helps them relieve stress, make sure they know where they can do that on campus. If it's getting their nails done every week, then they should do that."
5. Work on noticing instead of judging
Spannagel advised parents to keep in touch regularly with their kids at college and to insist, sometimes, on hearing their voice or FaceTiming so they can see how they look. However, she warned that parents should be "noticers" when observing their kids, and not pass judgment on them.
If they are cranky from lack of sleep or if they aren’t eating enough — instead of criticizing them, be aware and notice if a child seems to be eating, exercising, or sleeping more or less than usual, she said. Significant changes might be an early warning signal that something is off. One big tell that a student could need help, Spannagel said: any mention of hopelessness.
Spannagel also said that even though college students need their independence, it is OK for parents to decide to take something off their child's plate.
"If you need to pick up their medication from the pharmacy and mail it to them at school, who cares?" she said. "There's a million other opportunities at college to be independent. If they need you to do that one thing to keep them on track, that's OK."
6. Tell your children they are not alone if they struggle
Samantha Arsenault Livingstone is an Olympic gold medalist in swimming who struggled with depression and now works as a mental health educator and advocate. She knows too well the perfectionism and pressure Katie Meyer's parents mentioned in their TODAY interview, both for high performing athletes as well as the average person.
Going off to college as an elite athlete, she would have benefitted from knowing "other people struggled too," she told TODAY Parents. "I believed completely that I was the only one. Even after all my achievement, I felt like an imposter, and that for me was the driver into the depths of depression, into that dark, dark, space, because I felt like I would be found out if I revealed any sort of struggle."
Livingstone noted, "We don't need a diagnosis to be able to talk about anxiety. Sometimes kids feel they need permission to feel how they feel."
Hernández said the mental health crisis among college students is "generational," not just a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have to remember that it's being compounded now, because not only are students having to deal with the disruption the pandemic caused, but they’ve also grown up in schools with anxiety and stress from active shooter drills and thinking about their personal safety every day just being in school in general," she said.
This story was originally published in March 2022 and has been updated.