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Some College-Bound Students Face a Trifecta of Challenges

Mental health issues often arise on campus, beyond the reach of parental help.

Parents of college students first attending or returning to campus over the next few weeks would be wise to consider a few alarming but critical facts about this precarious stage of young adulthood:

  • The college years (age 18-22) are too often when symptoms first surface for the one in five adults in the U.S. who experience serious mental health issues each year.
  • New freedoms, temptations and pressures that accompany college life can trigger and/or exacerbate mental health conditions.
  • Upon becoming 18, children become legal adults and thus protected by privacy laws that govern the accessibility of medical and academic information, and thus make it difficult if not impossible for parents to monitor their well-being.

This trifecta of circumstances represents a perfect storm that can cause terrible harm to the lives of young people and their families. Every year, college students across the country experience mental health crises that derail their academics and sometimes put their lives in danger. These are often the children who return home without graduating and show “failure to launch,” sometimes for years afterward.

As a lawyer who specializes in these issues and counsels such families, I encourage parents to take proactive steps to manage potential on-campus mental health crises, especially if their children have already struggled with mental health challenges and/or if there is a family history of such issues or illnesses.

The single most impactful action worried parents can take is asking their children to sign releases authorizing healthcare providers and college administrators to share otherwise private medical and academic information. Such legal documents offer parents an often-crucial window through which to spot early signs of crisis (i.e., failing grades, emergency room visits). The alternative is that parents are often left completely in the dark, unable to intervene and ensure their children are receiving help.

I know first-hand that this can be a difficult conversation, having had it myself with all three of my children, who all signed such releases before going to college. It requires dedicated, in-depth discussion about the balance between privacy and access, and the trust required to make such arrangements work.

Parents can often best establish this trust by offering such concessions as customizing releases to limit their access to only certain kinds of details. For example, children 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 possible to execute a release with a specified date of expiration, though this might not be wise for children with diagnosed mental illness. Families in such circumstances should be understandably cautious, creating and maintaining more layers of oversight, not less.

One best practice is meeting with the college’s Dean of Students, as well as the counseling center, law enforcement office, disability office and others, to make sure students who’ve struggled with serious mental health issues are on the school’s radar and that multiple campus facilities have parents’ contact information on file. Parents can also vet local mental health professionals as well as nearby hospital emergency departments that offer psychiatric and/or substance abuse services, making sure clinicians have on file paperwork that clarifies diagnoses and prescribed medications.

It’s every parent’s dream to see their children thrive in college, taking their first, key steps toward adulthood and independence. For some children, that dream can only become a reality with a few necessary guardrails that simply make it possible for loved ones to provide help and support if needed.