Monday, February 14, 2011

Caring for the Mental Health of Your College Student

By Roberto A. Blanco, M.D.
A recently released national survey on the state of mental health for entering college students revealed that this year's freshmen class has the highest stress levels in the history of the 25 year survey.  There are several reasons.  According to study authors, students face increased competitiveness and demands in high school as well as more financial challenges due to today's economy.
Although it's an exciting time, your child's transition to college can be a difficult one - especially if he or she suffers from a mental illnessHere are some things that you and your prospective college student should be thinking about prior to choosing a university and heading off to school:
1.    What can I do to ease the college transition? 

Some schools offer an orientation program over the summer to help students become comfortable with the campus and surroundings, learn organizational and study skills and socialize with fellow freshmen.  

Apart from these organized programs, it is important that, as a parent, you work on transition issues and independence.  Make sure that your child has all materials needed for school including an organizer and a computer.  If your child is getting psychiatric treatment, teach your son or daughter the importance of their medicines, therapy and attending their appointments regularly.  If they haven’t yet been self-administering their medications, before going to college, it is important that they learn and start taking their medicines without supervision.

If you have serious concerns about how your child will do with the college transition, you may want to consider schools close to home.  Depending on the amount of concern, it may be best to choose a school which would allow your child to drive home for the weekend if needed.

2.   What’s the quality of the college's mental health program?

Some colleges and universities do not have mental health services available through the school.  If they don’t, you need to understand how a student can go about getting help.  If the school is not in a major city, you need to make sure that there are enough providers close by so that your child can get the services that he or she needs in a timely manner.

Some universities have therapists but no psychiatric providers on staff.  Others offer both counseling and psychiatric services but put a cap on the number of appointments at the university mental health center prior to referring students out to the community.  All of this information should be provided by each individual school.  And you should know all of this information prior to committing to a particular school, especially if your child is likely to use mental health services.

3.    What is the educational environment of the university?

Some universities are known to be high-pressure, unforgiving environments.  This could be due to the rigor, expectations or challenges of courses.  Sometimes, this can be eased by a strong academic support team or advising system.  Often, peers can make the university culture overly competitive in unhealthy ways.  Some places are notorious for students stealing other students’ lecture materials and notes or not helping out when needed.  If your child is particularly sensitive to stress, it may be best to go to a school where the environment is more collegial and supportive.

Other schools are notorious for having easy access to drugs or alcohol on campus.  While drugs and alcohol are available at most schools, they are easier to get at some schools which are located in major cities or areas of high accessibility.  If your child has a history of drug or alcohol abuse, you should be extra considerate of these location factors.

4.    Will the financing of this school put my child in overwhelming debt?

While a good college education is one of the most important investments, your child should not mortgage his or her future by creating large amounts of unnecessary debt.  In addition, universities with higher tuition may necessitate your child working during school to avoid excessive debt.  This can also add stress.  If schools are relatively equivalent in meeting your child’s long-term career goals, choose the college which will put your child in a better financial position after he or she graduates.
Of course, after your children go to college, you will want to monitor how they are doing intermittently.  Particularly stressful times are usually at the beginning of school, around exam time (midterms and finals) and anytime a romantic relationship ends.  Checking in around these times may be the most beneficial.  If it turns out that they need more help than some parental TLC, make sure that they see a professional.
I hope that these suggestions have been helpful.  Feel free to leave comments or questions for further discussion.

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Comments are reviewed before posting, and comments that include profanity or other inappropriate material will not be posted. The comment section is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional medical advice. All decisions about clinical care should be made in consultation with your treating physician. If you need help with a mental health issue, please visit our resource page.