Ben had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety in high school. As it came time for him to leave for college, he became anxious about leaving home and his safety net. He looked forward to starting with a clean slate – going to a place where no one knew about his struggles with his mental health – but he also worried about handling his symptoms on his own.
For college-bound students like Ben, it is time for students and their parents to think about how to handle mental illnesses without the family nearby.
More and more students are showing up to college already struggling with one or more mental illnesses. According to the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers, more than 85 percent of college counseling directors reported a steady increase in students arriving on campus already on psychiatric medication.
A study by NAMI showed that 64 percent of college dropouts had done so because of mental health related issues.
In general, many first-year college students arrive on campus unprepared to care for themselves. They tend to lack the basic life skills they will need to thrive in a new environment. Living away from home for the first time, making new friends and handling the rigors of coursework can make the transition to college difficult for any student. Add in an existing mental illness and the challenge is even harder. Even good change is stressful.
Often, parents of children who have struggled with mental illnesses have responded by doing more of the basic day-to-day tasks for their children in order to alleviate their child’s stress level. However, this takes away the child’s chance to learn basic problem-solving skills needed by independent individuals, and it is critical for college-bound students to become as independent as possible during the months before attending college.
For parents, the summer before college can be a time to be a coach rather than a problem solver. And for teens, it is a time to learn how to be proactive about one’s own mental health.
The goal is to set the child up for future success.
Below are some tips to help families begin to think about the college years ahead.
During the summer:
- Begin increasing your child’s responsibilities around basic life skills to include:
- making doctor and dentist appointments,
- taking medications on time,
- getting refills,
- doing the laundry,
- going food shopping,
- managing money,
- paying the cellphone bill,
- making travel arrangements,
- and developing time management, organizational skills and good sleep habits.
- Discuss college options with your child, including starting out at a two-year college or taking a gap – a year or more off from formal education to increase self-awareness and challenge comfort zones in a structured, goal-oriented way.
Preparing for college:
- After selecting a college or university, contact the counseling office to find a psychologist and a psychiatrist on campus or nearby. Then schedule an introductory visit soon after your child arrives on campus.
- Also notify the academic office if your child will need disability accommodations, such as needing the assistance of a note taker, arranging for early registration or reducing a course load. Accommodations will not be provided unless your child asks for them.
- Have your child sign a medical release before leaving for college, otherwise you will not be able to access your child’s health information.
- Encourage your child to join student organizations on campus such as Active Minds and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill on Campus, or NAMI on Campus, which help reduce stigma and offer support and education.