Off to college

Published 2:29 pm Friday, August 25, 2017

As kids flock back to school this month, most parents scramble around buying lunchboxes and pencils, but thousands of parents face a much bigger challenge — sending their kids off to college. Although this transition raises a host of concerns for parents, the bottom line is this: is your child’s head on straight?

It turns out, that’s a good question. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four adults aged 18 to 24 has a diagnosable mental illness. Among college students with mental health conditions, roughly three-fourths experienced a crisis during their college careers. Unfortunately, about one-third of those did not report their crisis to anyone on campus.

In light of these numbers, NAMI surveyed college students to understand why they aren’t getting the help they need. Fear of stigma is the biggest problem, as it is for many individuals with mental illness. Students, however, have more specific worries, such as whether professors will know about their treatment and deem them less competent, especially if they are pursuing a mental-health related degree.

Survey respondents also indicated that if their condition did not hurt their grades, they ignored it. Students who did want help often were not aware that they might qualify for accommodations or assistance if they disclosed their condition. Unfortunately, however, even when students knew about the available supports, they often did not trust that their information would remain confidential.

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to help is ignorance of available resources. Although colleges have Disability Resource Centers (DRCs), many students and their parents either don’t know it, or they assume this resource doesn’t apply to them. Yet this resource is a potential option for any student with an identified disability, whether it is a learning disorder such as dyslexia or a mental health condition such as depression.

Unfortunately, because kids this age are inexperienced in paperwork and bureaucracy, they may find the DRC process too cumbersome and overwhelming. They may also find that they cannot afford a current evaluation to receive services. Therefore, even though disability supports exist, it’s all too common for college students and their parents not to use them.

If you have a college student with a learning disorder or a mental health condition, there are several things you should know. First of all, understand that assistance for these problems doesn’t stop just because a child is over age 18. If your child has an Individualized Education Plan or a Section 504 Plan in high school for a particular condition, chances are good that he might continue to qualify for accommodations at the college level.

To get services, however, most colleges require a current evaluation (that is, less than a year old) to make their eligibility determination. Therefore, as your child enters his senior year, consider obtaining an updated evaluation. If you are uncertain what you need, contact the DRCs at the colleges where your child is applying for a specific list.

Next, you should also know that many colleges are improving supports for college students with special needs, especially during their freshman year. It’s important to remember, though, that once your child is 18 years old, you cannot access any of his health or academic records without his written consent, and you cannot require him to participate in any treatment.

To support this vulnerable age group, the American Psychiatric Foundation has helped establish a web resource called Transition Year. The goal of Transition Year is to help students understand and maintain emotional health as they transition from high school to college. This site has resources for both parents and students to help identify emotional issues, learn ways to cope and find schools that would be the best fit given the student’s particular needs.

In addition, most colleges have student support centers offering counseling for common college adjustment problems, such as time management or social stress. For more serious matters, student health departments have mental health professionals readily available. Although the transition to college can be tough, just because your child is out on his own doesn’t mean he has to face college demands all by himself.

Tamara Stevens, MA, is a child psychologist at Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 252 946-4134.