A college student, now a freshman at a large state university, called my office in distress last week. He’s not sure he can make it through his first year. He was receiving care before he headed off to start his life away from parents. His diagnoses include anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorder. I think he can be successful in college, even though he needs medication and psychotherapy. He’s bright and responsible, motivated and ambitious. But when kids struggle in college, sometimes it’s hard for families to know whether to bring them home, or encourage them to tough it out.
What would you do?
Your daughter came home during the break, and informed you that she is not doing well in college. In fact, she may not receive any credits for this semester at all. She hasn’t been attending most of her classes. She stays up half the night and then oversleeps in the mornings. She has been trying all semester to get her act together, but she is failing. Does this mean she’s depressed?
Your son came home during the holiday and spent every night out with his friends. He didn’t make curfew a single night. In the mornings, he wreaked of the previous night’s drinking and cigarette smoking. Does this mean he’s destined for the life of an alcoholic?
Your twenty year old has completed three semester of college and has made pretty good grades. She broke down over the holiday break and told you she doesn’t want to go back to college. She wants to drop out. She says she feels completely overwhelmed all of the time, and she doesn’t think she can continue on. She wants to take a leave of absence, or maybe drop out all together.
Your twenty-year-old son says he needs to drop out of college. He says he spends almost all of his time worrying that something terrible is going to happen to you at home. He sees vivid images of car crashes, brutal assaults, and kidnappings. He can’t stop worrying about the family. He says he needs to come home so he can personally observe that you’re okay. Otherwise, he will spend the rest of his time in college feeling preoccupied with his fears.
Which of these students needs to leave school and come home?
Reflect a moment. Are these individuals suffering from mental illnesses? Is it difficult to say with certainty? Where does a parent begin when trying to assess situations like the ones above?
Whether you’re the parent or a trusted advisor, consider how the stage of young adulthood might complicate the picture for any of the young adults described above. Rather than reaching for the withdrawal forms, it’s vital to consider how a college student, away from home for the first time, may plummet functionally from mild mental health or behavioral health symptoms. Many students can benefit from learning simple coping skills like time management or self-soothing. The presence of mental health symptoms does not imply disability, not for most of the people who have them.
Steps for parents with symptomatic college kids:
1. Start by asking the advice of a professional.
2. Look for a professional who is NOT a prescriber to offer the first opinion. Prescribers usually prescribe. If you’re uncertain whether medication is necessary, start with someone who can provide guidance, but wont necessarily take a narrow view of the situation.
3. Keep him or her functional if that’s possible. If school withdrawal in unavoidable, push for another type of functioning as soon as possible- perhaps a part time job or a volunteer role.
4. Think about the situation in terms of “problem,” not diagnosis. Mental health symptoms are often transient and stress induced. Young adults are in the process of defining their identities. Be cautious about adding “mentally ill” to their identities, unless you’re absolutely certain.
5. Accept the uncertainty of young adulthood. While you have known your child his or her entre life, s/he has never been in this stage of life before. Many things are changing, including his or her coping skills and emotions.
6. Resist the urge to compare your young adult to:
a. An earlier stage of his or her life.
b. Other young adults. Each young adult forges a unique path.
c. Fully functional adults who have successfully navigated through young adulthood.
7. Define your expectations. Do you want her to finish the semester? Should he see a counselor on campus right away?
8. Expect to understand the symptoms more clearly with time. Don’t panic. Listen and be supportive.