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August 16th, 2007

A Prescription for Parents

How do you know when your child at college needs help

 
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In his book College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It Dr. Richard Kadison, Chief of Mental Health Services at Harvard University, gives us a close up look at parents’ worst fears when they send their son or daughter away to college. The bad news is that college can be a difficult and dangerous place. The good news? As parents, when it comes to mental health issues you are the first and best judge of your child, and the first step in proactively parenting a young adult is to have a clear understanding of the negative ways some kids cope when the going gets tough.

The following excerpt from Kadison’s book offers parents what they’ll need to know to better observe and evaluate their child’s behavior (even from afar) and spot potential trouble.

“Having worked in student health for 25 years” Kadison says in College of the Overwhelmed‘s introduction “I’ve have been blessed with the opportunity to be involved with young people during the most exciting time of their lives—a time full of potential, dreams and infinite choices. But over the years I’ve seen the pressures and expectations increase and have seen more and more students struggling with severe mental health issues. I’ve also seen frustrated parents who feel shut out and unsure of how to help.”


College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It

The question is: How will your child handle these stressful situations? Some students tackle developmental issues, parental and societal pressures, and economic hardships with incredible strength and resilience. But I’ve also seen many who resort to dysfunctional and even dangerous coping methods that make it much harder to navigate this rite of passage.

This is a time of growing autonomy when students value making independent decisions above all else. As parents have pointed out to me quite frequently in parent orientation meetings, their children don’t talk to them much about their college experience, but it doesn’t mean parents can’t and shouldn’t play an active role at this important time in life.

The key here is that we must LISTEN closely for signs of problems and be gently persistent in inquiring about our child’s new life and experiences. Of course we must respect boundaries, but we can do that while listening carefully, offering advice when asked, and most importantly, being open to new ideas and interests without judging and leaping in to giving advice that isn’t requested. I know this is easier said than done, but the importance of giving it a good try will become clear as you read through this chapter and get an insider’s view of the problems common on college campuses today. This chapter will take a close look at several of the harmful consequences of coping mechanisms gone awry that are quite commonly seen in young adults facing the many stresses of growing up, meeting expectations, and finding a comfortable place in the world. In order of common occurrence, these harmful consequences include:

  • Depression
  • Sleep Disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Impulsive behaviors (that include sexual promiscuity and self mutilation)
  • Suicide
“You are the first and best judge of your child’s mental health. That is why your child needs you to be paying attention.”

Undoubtedly, some of the students who experience these symptoms are at higher risk than the general population to experience psychological and emotional difficulties simply by the draw of the genes, but after heredity, the leading risk factor is stress—and there’s plenty of that in college.

By now, you must be wondering: What can I do about any of this when my child is in the process of separating from the family, telling me less and less about personal problems, and rarely around to observe? [Kadison's book College of the Overwhelmed details specific steps parents can take to prevent a college meltdown] but the first step in proactively parenting a young adult is to have a clear understanding of the negative ways some kids cope when the going gets tough.

You are the first and best judge of your child’s mental health—especially because the number of college students who seek help from mental health counselors at colleges across the country is quite small. That is why your child needs you to be paying attention. Far too many kids in psychological pain don’t reach out. And even those who do, wait too long. College counselors repeatedly tell me that the saddest thing they see each year is the many students who have suffered for months before seeking help. These kids have symptoms, but they’re vague and hard to explain— they’re not sleeping, can’t concentrate, eat too much or too little—and they don’t associate them with either a medical or psychological problem. They need someone who has known them all their life, who can see the differences in their behavior, and with whom they have regular contact to ask, notice, and know what the symptoms mean—they need you!

The information in this chapter is not meant to scare you or to imply that psychological dangers lurk around every corner of the college campus waiting to jump out and attack your child. For the majority of kids, college is a wonderful time filled with opportunities for positive growth and development. But the fact is: For many it is overwhelming experience. This chapter will give you the heads up you’ll need to spot potential trouble. It will tell you what you need to know to better observe and evaluate your child’s behavior (even from afar) and know when to intervene before your child finds him- or herself in a crisis situation.

Doing this puts you in a very difficult position. Your child wants you to be proud of his developing independence and he needs the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, but he also needs your guidance and wisdom to recognize problems and proactively address them. You walk a fine line to balance these two tensions.

The balancing act becomes even more difficult with problems that had developed at an earlier age. Sometimes, students and parents do not mention these issues on college health forms or talk openly about them in hopes of gaining a “fresh start.” Coming to college is a fresh start, but the burden of having these problems and keeping them secret ironically often makes them worse. The student feels more isolated and gets the sense that she is “different,” and she worries that if friends knew what was really going on, she wouldn’t be liked. This is another example of needing to find a balance between being truthful and protecting one’s private life.

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The Author : Dr. Richard Kadison
Dr. Richard Kadison is the Chief of Mental Health Services at Harvard University
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