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Mental health prep for the college-bound, and how parents can help

The mental health crisis on today's college campuses is real. Local authors of a new book suggest how parents can prepare.

Students walk through campus at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Rowan is one of the fastest-growing colleges in the country.
Students walk through campus at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Rowan is one of the fastest-growing colleges in the country.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / MCT

This is the time of year many students are getting ready for the transition to college — visiting and applying to schools and retaking SATs and ACTs. But in many ways, that’s the easy stuff.

In their new book, The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, authors Anthony Rostain, a Penn psychiatry professor, and B. Janet Hibbs, a Philadelphia family therapist, offer advice to parents in an era when young adult anxiety and depression rates, not to mention youth suicide, are troublingly high.

Many college-bound students are managing a mental health diagnosis and often medication. According to the authors, ages 14 to 26 is when most mental illness most often strikes. What was undetectable or mild in high school may become apparent in college. In addition, federal laws limit what information colleges can share with parents; the authors suggest parents look into obtaining waivers, especially if their child already has issues. According to the most recent annual survey of the American College Health Association, one in four college students were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety in the last year, Rostain and Hibbs note.

“More treatment and more awareness does not create more mental illness,” said Hibbs. “The increases are real.”

Meanwhile, some experts say many parents have erred on the side of protecting their youngsters in the post-9/11 and post-Columbine world, rather than fostering independence. Now, ready or not, their student is heading off on their own.

Here are suggestions from Rostain and Hibbs for parents of the college-bound to consider now:

Q: If an adolescent already has been diagnosed with a learning disability or mental health issue and plans to go away to college, what should parents be looking into during the school selection process?

Rostain: If your kid has issues, you need to know what are the resources at the school. You need to be able to check the school learning center for assistance with any kind of learning problems and the school’s mental health services, counseling services. You need to meet with the people who are responsible for any kind of [academic and disability] accommodations. Then you want to go beyond that and look at things like, Are there clubs and activities for kids like my kid? Are there social supports and social safety nets?

By the way, you don’t get the services because you ask the moment you arrive at school. You have to be doing this before the kids get there so that when they get there, everything is in place.

What kind of conversations should parents be having with their kids to help them prepare?

Rostain: Self-acceptance is very important in the long run to being ready for school. Most important, especially when you look at today’s youth with so many mental health challenges, is the idea of having an open mind-set about getting help. That when things aren’t going well, you don’t just cash in your chips and try to hurt yourself or give up. If you need help, get help, instead of stuffing it, avoiding it, or saying you’ll get better. If you’re really depressed, you ought to be getting help. If you’re overwhelmed with anxiety, there are ways to treat that.

What if a parent believes their child needs help, but there is a communication problem?

Rostain: If your kid isn’t listening to you, who will they listen to? Talk to that person. It could be a trusted relative, like an uncle or aunt or an older sibling, or someone like a coach if they’re on a team. Share with those individuals: “Hey, so-and-so is struggling. Would you listen to what’s going on with him or her and encourage them to get help?” Sometimes you as the parent need to get professional advice. Our book is an attempt to get parents to realize that sometimes, they are the ones who need help.

For some youngsters, college may be the first time they have experienced failure.

Hibbs: People learn by making mistakes. That’s part of growing up, and parents need to be able to accept: “My kid is going to make mistakes, my kid is going to use poor judgment.” For a kid to be independent by the time they go off to college, parents have to prepare themselves that maybe their kid is really going to screw something up. Maybe it’s a test. Maybe it’s something that the kid is going to have to learn from. And the message parents should be saying back to the kid is: “Thanks for telling me. What do you think you want to do about it?” Then kids begin to solve their own problems so the parent isn’t always rushing in to solve the problem for them.

You’re a parent. What helped with your kids?

Hibbs: The best thing I ever did with my kids is I learned to be nonreactive. They would tell me anything, and I’d say: “Well, I really appreciate your telling me. How are you doing?” Listen nonjudgmentally. Act like this isn’t the worst thing you’ve ever heard and it’s not mortally fatal, and they’ll learn that they can tell you stuff. They know what your expectations are. They’ve lived with you long enough. If they tell you something disappointing, that takes a lot of guts. And you can encourage that.