It’s back to school time! A new crop of 18-year-olds are leaving home to begin pseudo-independent lives in college. This is the time of year when my inbox is flooded with emails from other clinicians who are using professional list-serves to assemble treatment teams for their patients who are going off to universities in other cities or states.
“Looking for psychologist and psychiatrist in Atlanta for student entering freshman year at Emory. Bipolar disorder diagnosed in February 2011; has been stable on new meds since suicide attempt in June. Patient is very insightful but needs close monitoring.”
“Need treatment team in Boston for incoming freshman at Boston University with 4 year history of bulimia and major depression. Weight is normal but patient engages in binge/purge symptoms 3-4 times per week. Patient has delightful personality but is very entrenched in ED symptoms.”
“20-year-old patient with anorexia nervosa, social anxiety, and OCD just released from our day treatment program needs multidisciplinary treatment team in Chicago as she returns for her junior year at Northwestern University. Patient was discharged at 90% of ideal body weight and is compliant with meal plan. Needs nutritionist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and internist familiar with EDs.”
“23-year-old patient with major depression and alcoholism is entering graduate school at UMass Amherst and needs treatment team. Has 2 months sobriety.”
As I read vignettes such as these, I can’t help but wonder whether it is in the best interest of these vulnerable young people to be away at college. Adjectives like “compliant” and “insightful” and “delightful” seem to be inserted to justify the decision to send the patient away to school and/or to entice clinicians to take on these challenging cases. Qualifiers like “2 months sober” and “90% of ideal body weight” do nothing to quell my apprehension. Frankly, they frighten me more.
Let me be frank: a psychiatric diagnosis is a game changer. Any artificial deadlines, such as an 18th birthday or the start of the school year, are irrelevant. Psychiatric disorders are serious, potentially disabling (think major depression, which is a leading cause of lost productivity in the workplace), even deadly (think anorexia nervosa, which carries a 20% mortality rate). Individuals with psychiatric diagnoses can and do recover and go on to lead productive, fulfilling lives, but this requires prompt, effective treatment and a supportive, low-stress environment for a sustained period of time.
The transition to college presents numerous challenges to even the healthiest and most well-adjusted young people: leaving their hometown, family, and friends; living independently in a different city or state; adjusting to dorm life; navigating new peer relationships and social pressures; managing one’s time and money; choosing a career path and taking academically rigorous courses; assuming full responsibility for nutritional intake, sleep schedule, physical activity, and medical care.
Let’s face it: the typical college lifestyle does not promote physical or mental health. Late nights spent studying or partying, daytime napping, chronic sleep deprivation, erratic eating habits consisting mostly of processed snacks and caffeinated beverages in lieu of balanced meals. Most college students drink alcohol socially, and many drink to excess multiple times a week. Widespread use of illicit drugs as well as rampant abuse of black market prescription drugs as study aids (e.g. Adderall) or sleep aids (e.g., Xanax) is a mainstay of university life. Casual sex with multiple partners, often unprotected and usually under the influence of alcohol, is the norm on most campuses.
Navigating these challenges successfully requires a certain level of mental and emotional stability. Maintaining good self-care in an environment where virtually everyone else practices unhealthy habits requires a maturity and strength of character that is beyond the reach of most 18, 19, and 20 year olds.
I have treated patients before, during, and after college, and have counseled their parents throughout this process. I worked at three different university counseling centers during my doctoral training. During that time I worked with dozens of students struggling with psychiatric illnesses and gained an intimate understanding of what universities do, and don’t do, to support students with mental health problems.
Now, as a psychologist in private practice near two large universities, I treat a number of college students as well as high-school students who hope to go away to college in the near future. I also have a few patients who had attempted to go away to college in the past, but experienced a worsening of symptoms, a full-blown relapse, or in some cases life-threatening complications which rendered them unable to live independently. These are young people who have returned home to the safety of their families and are now going through treatment to repair the damage with hopes of living independently in the future.
I have developed the following professional recommendations for parents of young people with psychiatric illnesses based on these clinical experiences as well as the latest scientific research:
1.) If your child is a junior or senior in high school and hopes to go away to college in the future, begin working with her and her treatment team now to establish criteria to assess her readiness for going away to college. I recommend collaboratively establishing a written plan which includes specific, measurable criteria which the child must meet before she is permitted to leave home.
2.) If your child has had life-threatening symptoms (suicide attempt, drug/alcohol abuse, eating disorder), ensure that her condition is in full remission for at least 6 months prior to letting her go away to college. For example:
- A child with bipolar disorder should have at least 6 months of mood stability without any manic or major depressive episodes.
- A child who has attempted suicide should have a minimum of 6 months without any suicidal behaviors, gestures, or urges.
- A child with a substance abuse problem should have at least 6 months of complete sobriety.
- A child with anorexia nervosa should have at least 6 months of eating independently without restriction while maintaining 100% full weight-restoration with regular menstrual periods.
- A child with bulimia nervosa should have at least 6 months of normalized eating with complete abstinence from all binge/purge behaviors.
3.) A young person going off to college should have, at most, minimal or mild mental/emotional symptoms. For example, a child with an anxiety disorder who has occasional panic attacks, or who feels somewhat anxious at parties around new people, may be able to function well at college, but a child who has panic attacks multiple times a week or who avoids most social situations is not yet ready to go away.
4.) Ensure that your child has effective tools to manage any symptoms that may arise. This may include CBT or DBT skills to manage feelings of depression or anxiety.
5.) Work with your child and her treatment team to develop a self-care plan that includes plenty of sleep, physical activity, time management, and balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals.
6.) Do not rely upon university services (student health center or student counseling center) to provide therapy, psychiatric, or medical services for your child. University counseling centers are not equipped to manage the needs of students with major mental health issues. Most student counseling centers are over-worked, under-staffed, and underfunded. By necessity, most have limits on the number of sessions each student can attend, and most will not support parental involvement in treatment decisions or even communicate with parents at all.
7.) Prior to your child’s departure for college, establish a treatment team off-campus.
- Interview the clinicians over the phone and schedule a family meeting in person with the clinician before the school year starts, during the time you are helping your child move into the dorms. If the clinician is reluctant to talk with you over the phone or refuses to meet with you in person, this is a red flag.
- I recommend selecting a clinician who welcomes individualized, appropriate parental involvement in college students’ mental healthcare. This means working collaboratively with parents based upon the individual patient’s needs in light of her diagnosis, history, and developmental stage, irrespective of her chronological age.
- Ensure that your child signs releases of information allowing you to communicate with the clinician regarding your child’s care (law requires that persons over 18 must provide written permission for a mental health professional to release information to anyone, including parents).
- Use the initial family meeting to provide the clinician with any relevant history about your child’s condition. Written psychological evaluations or discharge summaries from previous treatment providers are very helpful in this regard.
- Work collaboratively with the new clinician and your child to establish frequency of contact, and nature of communication, between you and the new clinician. For instance, I often work out a plan wherein I call parents every two weeks, or once a month, with a general progress report on the patient, without revealing the specific content of sessions (e.g., “Mary is adjusting well to dorm life. She’s had some mild anxiety but she seems to be managing it well.” Or “Annie has been struggling with an increase in depressive symptoms over the past week. I will keep you posted and notify you right away if there is any indication of suicidality or deterioration in functioning.”) Be very clear about the type of information that will be shared between clinician and parents. It is important for the patient to establish a trusting relationship with the clinician and to feel secure that, in general, “what happens in therapy stays in therapy.” It is equally important for the parents to be reassured that they will be notified promptly if the child’s condition deteriorates.
8.) Have a safety net in place. Decide exactly what extra supports will be provided, and under what circumstances, if the child should experience an increase in symptoms while away at college. For example: an increase in symptoms lasting longer than one week may result in the child coming home for the next weekend, or perhaps a parent would travel to stay with the child in a hotel for a week or two.
9.) Have a plan B.
- Work collaboratively with your child and her new treatment team to establish what conditions would warrant a more serious intervention.
- Some situations, in my opinion, warrant a medical leave and an immediate return to the safety of home. For example, a suicide attempt or gesture, an episode of alcohol poisoning, a weight loss of more than 5 pounds (in the case of anorexia nervosa) or a recurrence of binge/purge symptoms lasting longer than a couple of weeks (in the case of bulimia).
10.) Always remember, and reiterate to your child: whatever happens is feedback, not failure.
- A medical leave of absence is not the end of the world. Nor is it permanent. It is simply an indication that your child temporarily needs more support than can be provided in the college setting. It is no different from a young person taking a leave of absence for major surgery or cancer treatment (try getting that done in the student health center!).
- Many young adults recover more swiftly from a relapse compared to the first time they were ill – the benefit of maturity and the motivation of wanting to return to college and independent living can be very helpful in this regard. If your child does well at home and recovers from the relapse, she may be able to return to school away from home the following semester or the following year.
- Depending on the circumstances and the course of your child’s illness, it is possible that the best scenario for her would be to live at home and attend college locally, or transfer to a school in-state and come home each weekend. Again, this is not the end of the world. If her recovery is robust after college, she will still have the opportunity to go away to graduate school or start the career of her dreams somewhere else.
Attending college is a privilege and a gift, not an inalienable right. It is not something that one must automatically do right after graduating from college. Living away from home, apart from one’s primary support system, to attend a faraway school is a privilege unique to American culture, and is not a prerequisite for success in any way. In most other countries, young people who do attend college (and not everyone does) do so locally while living at home until they are married.
Take your child’s psychiatric diagnosis very seriously, and do the right thing for her health. As her parent, it is not only your right but your duty to make these decisions, and you should be supported by a treatment team that empowers you to do so.