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What Parents Want: To Know Their College Student Is Okay

New research shows parents want to be informed about their children's wellbeing.

As a psychiatrist working with college students, I encourage parents to play a continuing role in their student’s wellness and mental health. If a patient of mine has recently been hospitalized at a psychiatric facility, with the student’s permission we will call the mother together to talk about the best plan for recovery. If a student is experiencing suicidal thoughts, we will call the father and discuss how he can provide additional support.

Studies show that parent involvement with college students can increase wellness, reduce alcohol and drug use , and decrease suicidal thoughts . But what do parents think? Do they believe they should stay involved in their child’s mental health? New research on parents’ perceptions of college mental health reveals heartening and surprising findings.

A recent study of 1010 parents of college students showed that the majority understand mental health is a serious issue on campus, stay involved in their children’s mental health, want schools to disclose information about their students’ wellbeing, and believe colleges have more services for mental health than are actually available.

Below are key findings and their implications for parents.

1. Seventy-seven percent of parents see mental health as a serious/somewhat serious problem on college campuses in the United States.

I was glad that parents understand mental health is serious problem on campus. Knowing this will allow parents to recognize problems and encourage their children to seek help. In the study, 72 percent of parents think mental health concerns are worse than when they went to college. In fact, students are experiencing a growing rate of mental health problems, especially more serious ones. In the last decade, the number of students with a mental health problem has increased from to 19 to 34 percent, and the use of psychiatric emergency services has tripled.

2. Eighty-seven percent of parents know at least a fair amount about their college students’ mental health and 68 percent believe parents have a lot of responsibility to monitor mental health or report a concern about mental health.

Parents feel they have the most responsibility to check on their students’ mental health, but also expect campus staff to do the same. Fifty-five percent of parents hold mental health counselors responsible to monitor their students’ mental health. Thirty-six percent of parents have expectations of responsibility for coaches or club supervisors, 34 percent for faculty, and 30 percent for peers.

3. Seventy percent of parents agree with the statement “when it comes to mental health, parents deserve to be informed of their child’s well-being” while 23 percent endorse “students deserve to have their privacy protected.”

In addition, 95 percent parents of students with a mental health condition advocate for colleges sharing information with parents. Unfortunately, parents often have not been notified when students experienced a downturn in their mental health condition. Parents recently have sued universities when they did not learn about a student’s deteriorating mental health until the student died by suicide . University administrators and mental health providers would need to ask a student’s consent to talk with parents due to the privacy laws FERPA and HIPAA respectively. If a student will not give consent, they can only notify parents if there is an imminent risk of harm to self or others

4. Parents believe colleges offer a wide array of mental health resources.

Seventy-eight percent of parents believe mental health counseling is available on their college student’s campus; 59% believe there are psychiatric services. In fact, most campuses do have counseling services and about half have psychiatric services. A major problem is that these services can fill up midway through a semester and students cannot access services. Many colleges have hired case managers to connect students with community resources.

While parents of college students are more educated about and more involved in their mental health, they are not aware of limitations on university personnel to contact them or of insufficient resources on campus. How can parents ensure they can collaborate with campus personnel and connect their students with mental health care?

I recommend parents take the following steps:

1. Review with your child how to access mental health resources on campu s even before they begin freshman year.

2. Stay in touch with your child who seeks treatment until they have established care with a therapist and/or psychiatric provider. Encourage your student to work with a campus case manager to find care off-campus if on-campus services are full.

3. Encourage your child to sign a HIPAA release of information form if they are being seen by a mental health professional. This ensures that if a mental health crisis develops, you and your child’s provider will be able to communicate. I ask all my patients to sign a release of information form for parents. Most agree. Some prefer involving a friend in their treatment.

4. Ask your child to sign a FERPA release of information form that will allow you to see semester grades. Knowing your student’s grades could give you a sense of how they are doing or feeling. In addition, your student can give permission for you to speak with campus personnel.

This research demonstrating parents’ efforts to promote college wellness and mental health gives me hope. I encourage parents to continue advocacy for their children’s safety and well-being and develop strategies to work around the roadblocks in the system. Help students find mental health providers who see parents as a critical link in the college safety net.

©2019 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.