The Checkup: Meltdown U. And Mental Health Tips For Parents Of College Kids

For all those freshman just settling into dorm life this fall, college can be exhilarating, mind-blowing, the best years of their lives. But many parents don’t realize that their children are also facing a potential double whammy. Not only must new students navigate an entirely unfamiliar social, emotional and intellectual landscape, but they’re also entering a time in their lives — the ages between 18 and 21 — when many mental illnesses, from anxiety to depression to eating disorders, peak.

This week, The Checkup, our podcast on Slate, explores the mental health of college students. Here’s one sobering statistic: up to 50% of college-age kids have had or will have some kind of psychiatric disorder. That’s why we’re calling this episode “Meltdown U.” (To listen to The Checkup now, click on the arrow above; to download and listen later, press Download; and to get it through iTunes click here.)

The Checkup

Consider some more scary numbers:

–80% of college students who need mental health services won’t seek them

–50% of all college students say they have felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function during the last school year

–Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age youth – over 1000 deaths per year.

–The rate of student psychiatric hospitalizations has tripled in the past 20 years.

We asked Dr. Eugene Beresin, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, to offer some guidance on what parents should know about helping their college-age kids cope with the high stress of undergraduate life. Here’s his advice:

1. Be Prepared

It is likely your kid will experience a mental health problem or encounter one in a roommate or classmate. Discuss this, and talk about what to do if it happens. You might say, “Talk with some adult to get advice. This could be me, a dorm advisor, or mental health counselor. Don’t think things will just pass. They could get worse.”
Inform your kids about the mental health realities.

2. Get Information About Mental Health and Illness

Some colleges have great websites on mental health services. They just don’t promote this nor do many educate parents or students about the signs and symptoms of psychiatric problems. Some colleges may have information online, or you can go to other sites for trusted resources about college student mental health, even other college sites (good examples include Cornell, MIT, University of Pittsburgh). For educational material about the disorders themselves go to your state psychiatric association website (branches of the American Psychiatric Association or the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry).

3. Learn about College Mental Health Services

Though no one will direct you, call the counseling center and ask about the kind of coverage, professional staff and the range of services for your kid. And talk with the highest staff member you can. The person answering the phone may know little or nothing about what really is available. It may be a student volunteer, or an administrator who does not know the answers you seek.

4. Find Out About Your Insurance Coverage

This can be really hard. Think about your own coverage! The mental health system is very complicated. Call and ask about the number of office visits per year. Ask how many are just for medications, and how many are for therapy. Many insurance companies will say “we have unlimited visits for biological conditions.” But this means, “unlimited 15 minute visits for medication management.” If the coverage is obtained through the college, ask if it also covers visits off campus.

5. Learn About Local Mental Health Services Off Campus

Many college mental health services will be limited so it’s important to see what may be available off campus at a local counseling center or hospital. If you need help in finding out which is really good, call a nearby medical school with an associated Department of Psychiatry, and ask what facilities are recommended. If there is not a Department of Psychiatry, call the nearest teaching hospital for a medical school in the state, even if it’s not right near your college. Another good resource is the local chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

6. Don’t Worry About Stigma

Of course there is stigma associated with psychiatric illness. Our culture will not change overnight. One in four people will have a psychiatric disorder during the course of life. Worrying that this will be a black mark on your child’s record is natural but there should be even greater worry if mental illness goes untreated. Many individuals who are highly successful have had psychiatric treatment and this does not interfere with success in their career or in relationships. Quite the contrary. Help may prove invaluable for functioning in life.

7. Talk With Your Kids About Mental Health and Illness

It is one thing for us as parents to get the best information about psychiatric problems, relationship and drug issues. But your kids need this information too. They are living with this; they see their friends in trouble. Involve them in all of the tips described here. You will be surprised how much they want to know, what they have seen and their receptivity. Engage them. Let them know they’re not alone. Opening this door will serve them well, and is more likely to help them feel comfortable to talk about themselves and their experiences without feeling judged.

8. Get Help Early

The earlier your kid gets services for any emotional, behavioral or learning problem the better. While mental illness is misunderstood and the system is very difficult to navigate even for the best educated (even by doctors), most psychiatric disorders can be successfully treated. The key is early intervention and prevention of complications.

9. Be Brave

Colleges do their best, but are sorely lacking in resources, and frankly wary of putting such stigmatized problems on the front burner. You have to teach your child that it’s okay to ask for help and advocate for his or her own mental health needs.

10. Sleeping and Eating For Body & Mind

This may seem banal and irrelevant but getting enough sleep and not living on ramen goes a long way in retaining sanity. Remind your kid that pulling frequent all-nighters to study may be harmful to their long-term well being. Getting into a daily exercise routine can also alleviate stress in a profound way.

Readers, any specific questions lingering in your minds? Please post questions below, or tweet Dr. Beresin at @GeneBeresinMD. You can see his sources for this post here, here, here and here.

If you’re interested in earlier episodes of The Checkup, here’s one on sex problems and another on pregnancy myths.

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