Dear Dr. G.,
I am the father of three sons. My oldest son went off to college at the end of August. In fact, he went to the same college that I attended many years ago. Needless to say, I was very proud and excited that my son was following in my footsteps. After about two weeks at college, my son called my wife and started talking about feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. He had trouble sleeping and was experiencing panic attacks during some of his classes. My wife suggested that he go to the college counseling center, which he did. My son didn't feel like he was getting much help and begged us to come take him home. After much thought and many distressing phone calls from our son we made a decision to bring him home. My son is now seeing a therapist and being treated for his anxiety. While I want my oldest son (18 years old) to feel better, I must admit that I am deeply embarrassed that he basically had to drop out of college. I know that he's technically on a medical leave from school and might return next semester but I am avoiding my friends because I don't want to admit that my son couldn't take college. I also have to confess that when colleagues at work ask how my son is doing at college I lie and say that he is doing fine.
Please help me sort this out. I am confused and worried.
An Embarrassed Father
Thank you for writing to me. I will help you sort out your feelings and help you get to a more comfortable place. I am sure that it was both very disappointing and disconcerting for you when your son was having trouble dealing with college. You, like many other parents, had high hopes and expectations for your college child. I am sure that you were even more distressed since your son had trouble at the college that you also attended.
I must say that it was both terrific and fortunate that your son felt comfortable opening up to your wife about his feelings. He sought help at the college counseling center. Good for him. He could have suffered silently and become depressed. It doesn't sound like that happened. Instead, you and your wife brought your son home and are getting him professional help. Good for you. You are good parents.
It is not uncommon for college kids to experience anxiety. In fact, it is becoming increasingly common. In your son's case, it was interfering significantly with his well-being so he needs treatment before considering returning to college. Please don't consider your son a failure or a drop-out. He is, instead, taking care of his emotional health. Just like kids need to be in good physical health to have an optimal college experience they also need to be experiencing good emotional health. Your son might return to the same college when he is ready or he may want to consider a different school. Please help him consider his options when he is ready to decide what he will do next semester.
You are embarrassed. That is a shame but please know that it is not uncommon. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental health issues is alive and well. I am concerned, though, that you get support for what you are going through. Perhaps, there are a few friends who you can reach out to and be honest about what you and your family are sorting out. After all, you are going through this tough time as a family. You will find that once you start opening up about mental health issues others will share their stories of depression, anxiety, etc. Everyone has a story to tell about their own struggles or struggles of those who they love. It is unnecessary for you to feel isolated.
Finally, you may want to consider family therapy so that you don't feel helpless throughout your son's recovery. There may be many ways that you can support your son that will be beneficial not only for him but for your other sons as well.
I wish you good luck and patience as you figure things out. At a time like this it is important for you to support your son to the best of your ability.
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