University of Wisconsin–Madison

Supporting Your Student’s Mental Health During Winter Break

Parents and families play an important role in coaching their students through the pits and peaks of the college experience. But as students come home for break, it may be hard to know how to help. The messages and actions you convey as family members can make a significant difference in your student’s well-being. Holiday celebrations and the end of the semester can be a source of excitement, but these milestones can also cause elevated feelings of stress and anxiety. Help your student maintain perspective with these messages:

Message: Your well-being is most important.

Conversation Tip: Let your student know that you support them no matter what. College is a time of significant growth, and mistakes or failure also offer important opportunities to grow. A perfect GPA isn’t worth the negative impact to your student’s mental health.

Message: Self-care means advocating for your needs.

Conversation Tip: Faculty and staff are here to support students and their success, but they’re not able to help if they don’t know a problem exists. Advocating for your needs may feel tough or unfamiliar at first, but it can also be an empowering process and good practice for future situations.

Conversation Tip: Does your student need a sounding board, or are they not sure where to start? Staff in the Dean of Students Office can help.

Message: Reaching out for help is a sign of strength and maturity.

Conversation Tip: Focus your conversation on self-care, normalize and encourage help-seeking, talk about times you have done the same, and demonstrate support and compassion.

Conversation Tip: Prioritize getting help over the fear of stigma, judgment, or reputation. According to University Health Services, 93 percent of UW–Madison students do not think any less of a peer who seeks mental health care.

Message: I’m here to listen if you need to talk.

Conversation Tip: While the information you share with your student about mental health is important, students also take away how they felt during the conversation. Using a positive tone can help demonstrate that you’re a person with whom they can safely share their thoughts.

Conversation Tip: Use open-ended questions and invite your student into the conversation rather than just lead with advice. Encourage their questions now and at any point in the future.

Message: You are more than your grade in a class.

Conversation Tip: Express empathy and care. Help your student see the bigger picture and let them know that they are more than their academic achievements. Remember, you’re having this conversation with your student to set them up to succeed, not to leave them worried.

Ways to check in with students

It is always better to check in with someone and find that they are okay than to miss an opportunity to offer support when it is needed. Learn more from University Health Services on the Recognize, Respond, Refer webpage.

Recognize signs of distress:

  • Changes in behavior, such as missing times you’ve scheduled to check-in.
  • Changes to appearance, such as swollen eyes or changes to personal hygiene.
  • References to self-harm or death, including expressing feelings of hopelessness.

Respond to a student in need:

  • Start the conversation with concrete, observable behaviors that caused your concern.
  • Maintain a calm, supportive tone
  • Take all suicidal behavior and discussion seriously. If you believe your student is thinking about harming themselves, ask them directly. Many people fear that asking, “Are you thinking about harming yourself?” will give someone the idea. Research overwhelming shows this is not true. Asking about this directly opens up the conversation and can save a life.

Refer a student to resources:

  • Campus has a variety of mental health resources available to students.
  • If the person is not in immediate danger, the decision to seek help is entirely up to them.
  • It may be difficult for parents or family members to intervene if they live in different cities, states, or countries. If you are concerned for your student’s immediate situation, contact the 24/7 UHS crisis line at 608-265-5600 (option 9).

Here for you

By talking with your student about mental health, you’re also preparing them to be a caring and responsible member of the campus community. UW–Madison students report they are most likely to talk with a friend or roommate first if they experience emotional distress. Your openness with them about the topic could help a friend in need as well. 

If your student is struggling with a mental health issue, please assure them that they are not alone and that reaching out for support is a sign of strength. Call the UHS 24-hour crisis line if you need immediate support to help a student in crisis. If you are concerned about a student’s overall well-being, please contact the Dean of Students Office or the Parent and Family Program – we are all here to help.