Mental health and college students: What parents can do to support their children

The percentage of U.S. college students who are living with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance, and alcohol misuse, and self-harm are significant. Approximately 39% of college students experience a significant mental health issue. The 2018-2019 Healthy Minds study found that:

  • 36% of the random sample of students from colleges and universities across the U.S. who answered the study’s web-based questionnaire had experienced mild, moderate or major depression
  • 31% reported an anxiety disorder
  • 10% reported an eating disorder
  • 24% reported non-suicidal self-injury
  • 14% reported suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning suicide)

Parents of college and boarding school students can help their children better manage their mental health issues by taking proactive steps to connect their children with the appropriate resources and support systems while they are away from home. This is true both for students temporarily home during the coronavirus crisis but returning when it is over as well as those planning to begin attending in the fall. Building this plan should start well before the child leaves for school if he or she has a pre-existing diagnosis or as soon as the issue arises if it wasn’t diagnosed before the child went to college.

How parents can help

As a first step, parents should reach out to and make a connection with the college or university health center and counseling and mental health support resources. Both the parent and child should meet with a provider at the college health center and a member of the counseling staff and find out exactly what services are available. Questions to ask include:

  • What types of counselors are available (social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists)?
  • How often can a student see a counselor?
  • Is there a waiting list for a counseling appointment?
  • What fees, if any, are charged?
  • Is insurance accepted?
  • What emergency services are available after office hours, at night and on the weekend?

Depending on the child’s diagnosis and needs (medications or access to inpatient care, for example), parents should also find a local mental health specialist to provide treatment. Most college and university counseling services provide a limited number of visits per semester or year. Parents can find local mental health providers through their health insurance network and via recommendations from the on-campus counseling staff.

Medication management should also be considered. If the child takes psychiatric medication, parents should ask the college or university health service or counseling team if there is a staff psychiatrist who will manage the prescriptions. It’s also helpful to find out whether prescriptions can be filled through health services or whether they will need to be filled at an off-campus pharmacy.

Parents should make sure that all treating physicians have access to their child’s complete medical record. This can be especially important in the case of emergencies, both psychological and medical, when physicians need to know what medications the child takes or is supposed to take, any adverse reactions the child has experienced from medications, and whether he or she has a history of self-harm or attempted suicide. Before children leave for school, they should review their medical records with their doctors to make sure all information is accurate and up to date.

In addition to medical considerations, parents should find out what information can be shared with them about their child’s mental and physical health. Once they reach the age of majority (18 in most states, 19 in two states, and 21 in one state), parents may no longer have access to their children’s medical information without the child’s permission. To avoid this stumbling block, parents should ask their children to complete a HIPAA release or authorization. The children can indicate what types of information can be shared with parents. For example, they can be told about medications and hospitalizations but not about sexual health issues.

A final piece of the strategy is for parents to remain in regular touch with the child. Even though college is a time of learning to be independent and self-sufficient, this connection is important because parents are often able to identify potential problems before they escalate and offer support and suggestions that can help their children manage their condition effectively.

Miles J. Varn is chief executive officer, PinnacleCare, and can be reached on LinkedIn.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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