“Mom, I’ve been admitted to a psychiatric hospital.”

These are the last words any parent expects to hear after sending their child off to college, but parents are hearing them at an increasing rate. Psychiatric hospitalizations for college students have tripled in the last two decades. I’ve witnessed this increase in the college counseling center where I have worked since 1993. I’ve also seen the powerful ways parents can intervene to promote wellness and recovery.

Why have psychiatric hospitalization rates gone up? One possible explanation for this increase is that students are experiencing mental health problems at a much higher rate. One of three college students were diagnosed with or treated for a mental health disorder in the last year. One of ten students seriously considered suicide and 1.7 percent of students attempted suicide.

What kinds of problems will bring a student to a psychiatric hospital? Some students go to the hospital voluntarily when they are feeling suicidal and want to be in a safe setting to begin treatment. Others may be involuntarily committed to the hospital when they are judged to be a danger to themselves and will not sign into the hospital, like someone who is having a psychotic episode and hearing voices telling them to harm themselves. Problems with addiction and eating disorders can also lead someone to the hospital if their lives are judged to be at risk.

What should you do if your college student is in a psychiatric hospital? You can be a tremendous source of support for your child during this stressful time. Ideally, your child has signed a release of information form allowing you to be involved in treatment planning and post-hospitalization care. Most hospitals will encourage parent collaboration, as studies show people are at increased risk for suicide during the months post-psychiatric hospitalization. The support of family, friends, and care providers is essential.

Here are steps you can take to help.

  1. Go to the hospital and meet with your child and the treatment team. Learn about the problems your child is experiencing – depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, an eating disorder, or substance abuse. Discuss where your student can recover best after leaving the hospital – the university or at home. Hospital stays can be very short, as little as a few days, so decisions need to be made quickly. If you cannot get to the hospital in time for discharge, arrange to speak with the team by phone. At the university where I work, I have seen many students return to school after a hospitalization. Other colleges may be more restrictive about whether your child can return to school right away. A representative in the dean of students office can provide more information about campus policy.
  2. Ensure your child has the mental health care that meets their needs post-hospitalization. Some students benefit from an intensive outpatient program after a hospitalization, where they might attend a 3-hour program three times a week that includes individual therapy, group therapy, and psychiatry consultation. Others might return to their previous treatment, meeting with a therapist and/or a psychiatrist for regular follow up visits. Ideally, your child should see a mental health professional within a week of discharge. If your child does stay on campus, be aware that not all schools provide services for students with more complex problems. You may need to work with a campus case manager to find mental health care off campus.
  3. Work with the dean of students office to address academic issues. If your student is leaving for the semester, they will need to obtain letters from their mental health care providers in order to medically withdraw from the semester. If your student is staying in school and wants to reduce their course load, they will also need to obtain letters supporting this.
  4. Encourage your child to register in the school’s disability resource center. The disability resource center can provide academic coaching and support for your child as they adjust to being back in school. Depending in your child’s mental health issue, they may be able to take tests in a quiet setting with additional time.
  5. Establish how you will provide emotional support. If your child returns home, you will want them to pursue treatment and also maintain structure through work, volunteer work, or online classes. If your child is in school, you may want to visit on the weekends until you know they are settled. Work out how you might increase phone contact. Ask your student for the name of a friend you can call if you are having trouble getting in touch with them. Request your child sign a release of information form with the therapist and/or psychiatrist so all of you can collaborate and share information to promote recovery.
  6. Take care of yourself. This is an extremely stressful time for you. Maintain your sleep and eating schedule. Identify friends and family you can reach out to for support. Seek counseling or attend a support group through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) or the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (dbsalliance.org) if you are struggling or need advice.

Remind yourself and your child that people recover from mental health issues with therapy and/or medication as well as lifestyle approaches including strong social support, healthy eating, exercise, mindfulness meditation, and avoidance of drugs. In my years of practice, I’ve seen students recover from two or three hospitalizations and go on to lead happy and productive lives. Some even go into the mental health field and call on their experiences to understand and help others. Teach your children that even when they feel engulfed in darkness, there is hope and light around the corner.

My book, The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students, was recently released.

©2018 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved.

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

If you’re interested in reading about a particular topic, please email me at marciamorrismd@gmail.com

You are reading

College Wellness

Helping Your Child After a Psychiatric Hospitalization

Parents can take steps to promote their college student's recovery.

Helping Your College Student Cope with a Grandparent's Death

Caring for your own physical and emotional health will help your child the most.

“Dad, I Think I Have ADHD”

4 ways parents can help their college student deal with ADHD