On Your Mind: Could my college student be having a nervous breakdown?

Dear Tom,

My 19-year-old daughter is a freshman in college, and I’m worried that she may be having a nervous breakdown. She was overwhelmed with worry during her final exams and her stress level didn’t go down once the exams were over. She’s a perfectionist who puts a lot of pressure on herself so I don’t know how to help her. She recently broke up with her boyfriend so she seems more isolated now. She is losing weight and just doesn’t seem to be herself anymore but doesn’t talk to me about it. Is a nervous breakdown a medical thing we can have treated?

Dear Mom:

So sorry your daughter is struggling. A nervous breakdown is not an official medical diagnosis but is  more commonly used to describe a cluster of physical symptoms which indicate an acute or sharp response to stress. What your daughter is experiencing is not uncommon for someone in her situation and may be caused by the stresses she is experiencing – new school and social environment, added academic pressure, loss of a relationship, and uncertainty about the future.

What is commonly referred to as a nervous breakdown is the physical response to these stressors and some change in day-to-day functioning. The physical response includes symptoms such as irritability, decreased ability to concentrate, tearfulness, disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, isolation, and even rapid heart beat (like panic attacks). These symptoms can be related to an underlying mental health challenge, such as depression or anxiety, or more rarely, a major mental illness. However, these symptoms can be treated, and there is help available.

I would certainly recommend you schedule an appointment with your family physician (if you don’t have one, you could contact your health insurance company and see what physicians are on their panel of providers in your area).  Also, since your daughter does not want to talk to you, an appointment with a counselor may help. Most colleges have a counseling office or there are plenty of counselors in practice in NW Arkansas. Having someone to talk to about what she is experiencing can be very helpful and relieve the stress burden.

Most importantly, continue to express your love, support and concern for her without passing judgment.  She is experiencing a lot of change at this time and needs your support whether she says so or not.


Tom Petrizzo serves as CEO of Ozark Guidance and has degrees in social work and law. He has spent the last 20 years managing non-profit centers in Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Arkansas. He has also served as adjunct faculty at the social work graduate program at three large universities. He’s married to Teri Classick, a licensed clinical social worker, and they have two daughters. When he’s not at work, Tom likes to jog, bike ride, read and he even belted out the National Anthem lately at a Northwest Arkansas Naturals Game!

Tom would be happy to answer your questions and read what’s on your mind. Click the butterfly icon below to fill out an anonymous submission form with your question or concern. The form contains NO identifying information and is designed to give local women an online place to share concerns with a person qualified to offer feedback. Tom will be back each month to answer another woman’s question.