If you’re a college student or the parent of one, you may be suffering whiplash.

When students were sent home in March, everyone assumed it was just until the end of the semester.

Dr. Michael Cristo

Some colleges and universities welcomed students back in August or September, only to send them home a week or so later. Even those students who are back at school don’t know from one day to the next if they’ll get to stay or be sent back home.

Students at home may feel they’re losing out on the college experience. And parents are having to make their own adjustments now that the nest is filling back up. Dr. Michael Christo of Novant Health Psychiatric Medicine in Charlotte offers some pointers to help everyone cope.

I’ve read that there was a mental health crisis among college students even before COVID-19. Is that true?

Yes. There are large amounts of mood disorders and substance abuse disorders among the college population, and COVID-19 could add to that.

The college years are an important developmental stage. College kids’ brains are still developing. College students are basically finding themselves, figuring out their identities. It’s a very important time for developing social relationships.

So, this whole year has been a challenge. High school seniors missed their proms and their typical graduation ceremonies. And now they’re going off for freshman year and maybe being sent home. It’s very isolating, challenging and confusing.

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There are two scenarios families with college kids are dealing with now. Either the kids are home – or they’re away at school and maybe not being as careful as they should be. What can parents do to help in both cases?

Parents can use this time as an opportunity to build better relationships with their adult children, if they’re back home. Try to reframe this from being a horrible situation to being an opportunity for growth. Being 18 or 19 and living at home and getting support from your parents is not – or does not have to be – a bad thing.

College can be overwhelming. Not just academically, but having to navigate socially. It’s a lot to throw an 18-year-old into. You can slow the transition and ease into the college experience by being a student at home.

As for the students who are back on campus and going to parties and maybe then seeing COVID-19 outbreaks, it’s easy to get mad at, and maybe shame, them. But remember: Kids are wired for social interaction. This is what college students do. Don’t blame the kids. College administrators should actively look for ways to allow them to interact in person safely.

Whether your kids are at home with you or away at school, remind them: This will get better. This, too, shall pass.

What can students do?

These times are definitely raising anxiety. This is the time for students to learn good coping skills, to keep solid social networks and to get good nutrition. Don’t fall into negative coping strategies, such as substance abuse. Don’t isolate. Look for ways to view this time as an opportunity and not something that will hold you back.

Is now a good time for a college student to talk to a mental health professional? I mean, sort of as “routine maintenance” before there’s a problem.

Yes. Student mental health centers can be a great resource now. Use them. Get help sooner rather than later.

Do you think some people will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when all this is finally over?

It depends on how severely a person is impacted. Maybe if you were sick with COVID-19 or lost a loved one to it, that could be a result. But this is really unprecedented. We don’t know what the long-term consequences will be, but we know they’ll be felt for years to come.

For the most part, you sound very measured and calm. I think people will be relieved to read that it’s possible to frame these strange times as positive.

This is a challenging time, and I don’t want to minimize that. It will get better. Until then, we’ve just got to keep encouraging each other.