College Success for Students with Mental Health Issues

Sending a child off to college is never worry free.  As a parent you hope that you have instilled enough opportunities for independence for your child to thrive on his or her own, but the true test comes once the last box is loaded into the dorm room and you drive away, hopefully not letting your teary eyes show.

But what happens after you leave? With the recent suicide at William and Mary, and numerous others at other colleges, parents of students with mental health issues have an extra layer of worry.

Students who have been diagnosed and treated prior to leaving for college have time to develop a plan to manage every potential scenario.  I spoke with Aaron Cohen, a Staff Psychologist at UC Berkeley, who is intimately aware of student mental health issues.  Here are his tips for managing the transition to college successfully for students with mental health issues.

  • Know your Resources.  Every college has a health center or psychological service center that provides counseling for its students.  Approximately 10-30% of students avail themselves of services during the course of their college careers.  For students with long-term mental health issues, it is important to identify before you go what the school’s coverage will allow and if you have health insurance, how much will that cover.
  • Understand your Trigger Points. Lack of sleep, overwork, drinking, these are all circumstances that can make all students vulnerable, but for students with mental health issues, the potential ramifications can be more serious.  Students should understand what makes the more vulnerable and be mindful of how they feel.  If students can anticipate the signals before their condition gets out of hand, they can seek help early and nip it in the bud.
  • Recognize That Parents No Longer Have Control. Most college students are at least 18 years old and are adults.  Therefore, parents no longer have access to information regarding their health unless their child specifically grants it to them.  Students will have to sign a waiver to release information to parents.
  • Create a transition plan. It is important for the student to develop a transition plan with their therapist for going to college.  Can they continue to speak remotely with the therapist until the student has found someone with whom they feel comfortable?  It is a good idea to meet with the mental health provides at their college before school starts or during orientation so that the student can interview some on campus therapists early on.
  • Develop a Worst Case Scenario Plan.  What will you do if you have an episode?  How will you tell your roommate if you are in trouble?  How will you communicate with your Resident Advisor?  Will you forewarn them to look for certain signs (based on trigger points) to let you know if you are in danger?  For example, if you are depressed, are you skipping class, sleeping too much?  If you have bi-polar disorder, are you becoming manic?  Should they call your parents?  Your psychiatrist?  Health services?

High school seniors have some time  to get everything in place, so start early and develop a realistic plan to help achieve a smooth transition.

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