16 Aug Be Proactive About Your College Student’s Mental Health
The telephone call in the middle of the afternoon from her son attending college out of state surprised Cindy, but what happened next was alarming. Her son asked where she was; she laughingly replied, “Home making your favorite lunch.” He said, “Oh… I’ll call someone else to come get me.” Cindy paused, and then asked where he was. He replied, “I just checked myself into a mental hospital – Bye”. The phone went dead. Cindy had no idea where he was; he did not answer her return call to his cell phone (later she found out it had been taken away by hospital staff) and she wasn’t sure where to start.
This article is intended not to scare you but to educate you. As parents like Cindy, we need to be equipped to handle the unexpected. Psychological distress—including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and self-harm—has increased dramatically among undergraduates. One survey found that more than 90 percent of college counseling centers reported seeing more students with serious mental health problems than in past years. Another study of 90,000 students showed that 50 percent showed signs of depression and 93 percent felt overwhelmed at some point in their college career. Colleges face the difficult task of balancing the needs of distressed students with their responsibility to provide a safe learning environment.
Here is the catch: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) guarantees specific rights to students regarding the privacy of their educational and medical records. This includes privacy from their parents/guardians. If you call the on campus health center knowing your student is there, laws dictate that staff cannot confirm that, or give you any other information about your student. The good news is that the staff usually understands parents’ concerns and will be responsive as partners in protecting your student’s health.
This generation of college-age students generally has been “well watched over.” You know your child and his or her normal behaviors best. Stay in contact. During the communication time you have with your student, watch for changes in behavior such as those listed at [http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/students.cfm]. Does their behavior or expectations of themselves seem unusual or extreme? In hindsight, Cindy realized her son was taking 21 credits and was not sleeping. Be realistic and be aware. Here are some actions to take if you think there may be a problem:
• Visit your student ASAP to determine for yourself what is going on. Is this a brief period of overwhelm or is there a deeper problem? If a mental health issue is diagnosed, your student has options, including taking a medical leave of absence. Often, their space at the college or university will be saved until they are ready to return. Your student will need your assistance in any decisions that may need to be made. This is not a failure, only a hiccup.
• If your student acknowledges that they are not feeling like themselves, ask them to call or go to the on campus health center on campus. Ask your student to sign a release form allowing you to receive information about their condition.
• Visit the on site campus health center website for mental health resources. You will most likely find valuable links to the other resources.
• If you are unable to contact your student, contact their friends, roommate(s) or neighbors, and resident advisor or hall director if they are in the residence halls. Carefully share your concerns. Ask if they can assist you in contacting your student. The campus housing department may be able to assist you with finding this contact information.
• If you’re concerned and don’t feel that your student will call the Psychological Health and Psychiatry Clinic at the on campus heath center, know that most campus health centers will take all calls from parents seriously and will respond with a wellness check if necessary. Get the name of the staff member that you spoke to for follow-up.
• If it is after hours at at the health center or you feel that your student is in danger and/or needs a wellness check immediately, call the local city police dispatch. City police will work with the campus police to best recognize and treat your student in an emergency situation. City police are exempt from FERPA.
• Make sure your student and you know about any medications they are taking. Be sure they have all the information they need to refill prescriptions.
• If your student is upset over another student’s health, have them contact a health counselor or often the campus will have an Office of Victim Assistance. Check the campus website for information.
This can be scary stuff—but knowing the resources available you can help via telephone. For Cindy, her son suffered his first bi-polar episode at age 20. She contacted the local police. They determined he needed continued observation at the local community hospital. By the time Cindy was able to get to her son six hours later, he was settled into a top local mental health hospital. Today her son is successfully back in school full time under the care of local mental health professionals. There is a fine line between interfering with your adult student’s life and being his or her best advocate. Cindy’s suggestion is to watch for changes in behavior in your student and have a list of local contacts that can be counted on to assist in getting the best help as quickly as possible. We suggest you do the same.