Guardrails for the College-Bound With Mental Health Needs

What every worried parent should know to keep on-campus risks in check

Posted May 09, 2018


The months leading up to a teenager’s first semester of college can be an anxious time for any parent, though some have explicit reasons for concern. Those who’ve helped their children navigate mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression – as well as serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – are likely equal parts elated that their kid will experience life on campus and terrified at the prospect of him or her leaving home.

They’re not wrong to feel this way. Advances in pharmacology have made it increasingly possible for young people with a range of mental health issues to experience the most coveted milestones associated with adolescence. However, college and its lack of supervision, academic pressure and easy access to alcohol and drugs can present challenges even for such students who’ve demonstrated a strong ability to function and succeed.

That’s not to suggest that these young people shouldn’t attend college. Most can and should. But given the stakes, parents would be wise to understand certain dangers and the guardrails they can enact to mitigate risks, best ensuring their children’s safety while they’re away from home.

Most crucially, parents should recognize that once their child turns 18, he or she becomes a legal adult and is protected by privacy laws governing the accessibility of medical information (HIPAA – Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and/or state confidentiality laws) and academic information (FERPA – Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). These laws make it extremely complicated and sometimes impossible for parents to monitor their adult child’s wellbeing. In the event a student stops communicating or exhibits worrisome behavior, parents are often distressed to learn they might have little ability to intervene.

It’s important to note that health and safety exemptions exist for HIPAA and FERPA, as well as equivalent state laws, but it can be difficult to convince college administrators that a child’s situation warrants such an exemption.

Families concerned about this issue can take proactive steps to manage a potential crisis by asking their college-bound student to sign releases authorizing healthcare providers and college administrators to share otherwise private medical and academic information. Teenagers who are concerned about their privacy can specify the kinds of details they do and don’t want disclosed – for example, they might be comfortable with parents knowing if they’ve been attending therapy but prefer to keep the contents of such conversations private.

It’s also important for parents to learn about colleges’ specific policies and procedures, and whether students need to sign additional releases specific to student health centers. This can be accomplished on a highly recommended, often additional campus visit, during which parents should look to meet with the Dean of Students, as well as the counseling center, law enforcement office, disability office and others, to make sure their child is on the school’s radar and ensure multiple campus facilities have the parents’ contact information on file in case of a problem or emergency.

During such a visit, it’s also worthwhile to vet local mental health professionals as well as nearby hospital emergency departments that offer psychiatric and/or substance abuse services. Parents should bring paperwork from previously utilized mental health professionals, if any, that outline the child’s mental status, medications, changes in behavior, etc.

These precautions can be extremely unnerving for young adults who don’t necessarily welcome this level of parental involvement in their anticipated college life. It can help for families to have dedicated, in-depth conversations discussing the balance between privacy and access, and the trust required to make such arrangements work.

College is a very special time in a young person’s life, but one that poses especially pronounced dangers for those with mental health conditions and illnesses. With a little assistance, research and preparation, and appropriate guardrails, parents can help their child derive all the benefits of college while keeping the risks in check.