Going away to college – it’s a rite of passage for many and a time of huge personal growth and change. But for young adults dealing with mental health problems, it represents a whole new set of challenges.
A 2012 survey of college students found 27% of respondents said they lived with depression; 11% noted problems with anxiety; and 24% said they experience bipolar disorder. So while it may feel like you’re all alone in dealing with your concerns and fears for your child, clearly many families face the same thing.
Fortunately, there are steps you and your child can take now to prepare for transitions that come from a new life away from home.
“Due to better mental health care and campus services, more young adults with a mental health diagnosis are attending college than ever,” notes Donna Jackel in the Chicago Tribune. “What parents need to know is that with strategies crafted in advance and monitored from afar, teens with a mental illness can thrive in college and beyond.”
Pick the right school
One of those strategies is to choose the right college. Do your homework and learn about the mental health care in place at the colleges you are considering. And make sure those facilities have an adequate number of staff who can help your student with their mental health concerns.
“If a school of 20,000 students has a counseling service of three people that’s probably a cause for worry,” notes Victor Schwartz of The Jed Foundation in an interview with US News and World Report. “The benchmarks that we think about are about one counselor per 1,000 or 1,500 students," Schwartz continues.
The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide among college students, ranks colleges for their mental health programs and has awarded several colleges their mental health seal of approval. When deciding on a school, look for the kinds of programs that these college offer.
When you visit the school, talk about mental health care options available, and what special accommodations might be available to make your child’s experience a healthy one. Take advantage of the help that’s offered, and make sure your child is comfortable asking for what she needs.
College is a huge lifestyle shift, with a high increase in both social and work stress. Your child will have more freedom than ever before, and easy access to self-medication. If your child has experienced serious suicide ideation in the past, you may want to consider a year or two at a local college, instead of living away from home, to help ease the transition and manage the change.
Talk it through and document it
College students get sick; it’s a fact of life. The increased stress, living in closer quarters, and all the new experiences are a perfect breeding ground for illness of all kinds. A student with a mental health problem is not immune.
Talk to your child about their health, and make sure they know where to go for help. And be prepared in advance with a written summary of your child’s health.
If your freshman has any kind of chronic condition, like diabetes, asthma, or some form of mental illness, have their current health provider create a short summary of their conditions, treatments, and any medications.
“Sure, it's their bodies and they ought to know, but the reality is that parents are often the point of contact with pediatricians,” explains Lisa Heffernan at NBC News. Arm your child with the information they need to know in advance of an incident or emergency.
While on-campus health sources can be useful, you’ll want to find a local mental health professional outside of school that your child can trust. Your insurance company can help you find someone in the area who participates in your plan. Make sure your child has their contact information, and a way to get there if they need an office visit.
It’s important to understand that while your child is away, you’ll lose the ability to know everything about their condition, especially once your child turns 18. Talk to your child ahead of time, and work out an arrangement where he is comfortable with you calling his providers for updates. Make sure to fill out the necessary paperwork from the provider to give you legal access to your child’s medical records.
Give your child the independence they need during this time of growth (don’t be a helicopter parent), but do find a way to keep communicating on a regular basis. You can also request to have access to your child’s grades through the registrar’s office; this can clue you in if your child is struggling or needs more help.
What if a leave of absence is needed?
College is a time of rapid change, emotional growth and a new set of responsibilities for personal care and “adult” decisions. When it comes to a college student with a mental health problem, all of this can be overwhelming. For some students, knowing when to step back for a while to regain a healthy balance is important.
A leave of absence from school might be a viable option if the pressures become too great; make sure your child knows this is an option if needed.
“College can be an amazing time for personal growth, learning, and building relationships. For many students, it can also be a time of high-stress and increased mental health struggles. In order for you to have the best experience possible, it is important to take the time you need to focus on yourself and your mental health,” advises Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit.
Most schools will work with your student to make reasonable accommodations for their mental disabilities, including financial and academic concessions. MHA advises that contacting the Dean of Students is a good place to start if you feel a leave might be needed, or if you need some other accommodation to help make their college experience a success.
With some advance planning and research, there is usually no reason why your child cannot safely attend college and thrive.
With an eye to the best for our kids,
Michele Autenrieth Brown is the director of development for Clarity Child Guidance Center. She became passionate mental health advocate after trying to navigate the system of care to support a family member. When she is not shuttling kids to practices or spending time with her husband, Michele is perfecting just what to say to get the perfect eye roll and sigh from her teen and pre-teen children.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950- NAMI (6264).