Margaret Skoch of Cleveland felt a jumble of emotions as the day to leave for college neared. She was thrilled to be attending her dream school, Notre Dame University, but anxious about leaving home.
And then there was her mental health. Skoch had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety in high school. Although she was feeling confident and healthy, she worried her symptoms might return.
That worry turned into a full-blown panic attack her first night in her dorm. It was the beginning of a rough few months.
“I was really homesick. I called home every day crying,” recalled Skoch, now a junior. “It was bizarre because I was so happy to be in this place that I loved and at the same time sometimes miserable.”
Due to better mental health care and campus services, more young adults with a mental health diagnosis are attending college than ever. According to a 2013 survey, 88 percent of college counseling directors reported a steady increase in students arriving on campus already on psychiatric medication.
But with strategies crafted in advance and monitored from afar, teens with a mental illness can thrive in college and beyond.
Advocate for yourself
Students who have been diagnosed with mental illness should know what they’ll need to maintain their recovery – before they leave for college.
But think about your daily routine, too, advised Beth Meier, the director of Meredith College’s Counseling Center.
“As a student, think about what you depend on your parents for – money, encouragement, clean laundry, waking you up in the morning or organizing your day,” she said. “Students often also need practice speaking up for themselves.”
That’s true for all students, but it’s imperative for a student who is living with mental illness. You’ve got to be able to advocate for yourself.
Students should get familiar with counseling and mental health services available at their colleges before or soon after they arrive on campus. Students with a diagnosed disability can register with their disability services offices to seek academic accommodations. Documentation from a health care provider is required.
Before heading to college, ask yourself if you’re ready for the big transition. Meier said to consider these questions: Can you live independently? Is your mental illness stable? Do you have a plan for your mental health care?
“You are good to go when your answers are yes,” she said.
A stressful transition
Mitch Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and director of clinical psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill, said students should “be prepared for a stressful transition and a lot of temptations from peers to engage in risky behavior.”
And part of preparing means being proactive. “Get in touch with the local student counseling center as soon you as get to campus, and make sure you know what resources are available if there is a crisis,” he said.
Be aware of the freedom that comes with independence – which can be a blessing and a curse. “With increased autonomy comes increased responsibility,” Prinstein said. “It’s best to create some structure in college – specific times for studying, working and fun, as well as classwork.”
“There are big temptations to conform to peers who want to go out and party a lot or skip out on studying,” he continued. “Everyone has different goals for college and different habits. Make a plan in advance for how to resist these temptations.”
Improving a child’s organizational and study skills should be a priority, said Rick Auger, a professor in the department of counseling and student personnel at Minnesota State University in Mankato.
“For almost all mental health issues, organization is so critical, especially ADHD, anxiety and autism spectrum disorder,” he said. “Binders, folders, assignment planners – all those things are helpful getting students into the habit of being organized.”
Parents who have been advocates, cheerleaders and anchors in their children’s lives must nurture independence in the months leading to college. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to let a child fail – modestly, according to Auger. It’s time to be a coach rather than a problem solver, he explained.
“Ask, ‘How are you going to go about solving this?’ Start with small, low-stakes problems. That’s where kids grow in confidence and self-advocacy.”
Parents can help
Parents are likely to have freshman jitters right along with the teen. Staying in regular touch can help both, but the terms of communication should be worked out beforehand, suggested Lauren Freise of San Francisco, a sophomore at Boston College who has battled depression and anxiety.
“While a parent understandably may want to ask their child how they are doing or steer a conversation toward their mental illness, sometimes just sending a text with a picture of where they are and a blurb about what they are doing will really make their kid’s day and lets them know that their mom or dad are thinking about them,” Freise said.
Also, parents should be aware of on-campus resources and encourage their child to make use of those support services.
“Parents can help students find a psychiatrist or psychologist that meets their child’s needs,” Prinstein said. “Make sure your child knows what insurance coverage is available to them and they have the phone numbers of any health care providers who may be able to provide help or resources while in college.”
And don’t forget: Counseling and mental health treatment work best when students voluntarily choose it.
Correspondent Page Leggett contributed.
▪ “Transition Year”: The Jed Foundation and the American Psychiatric Foundation teamed up to produce this guide to help students and parents prepare for college. jedfoundation.org.
▪ Active Minds supports about 400 student-led, campus-based chapters that provide students with programming to educate others about mental health, connect students to resources and reduce stigma toward mental illness. activeminds.org.
▪ There are about 90 NAMI on Campus clubs so far. These student-led organizations support fellow students, raise mental health awareness and promote mental health services. nami.org/Get-Involved/NAMI-on-Campus.
▪ Mental Health America offers a free online screening tool to help determine if you might be suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or PTSD. Visit mentalhealthamerica.net and click “Finding Help.”