Important questions you should ask before sending your child off to college

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There's a talk that's not happening between parents, colleges, guidance counselors and students.

While the college application process often involves asking students about their grades, extracurricular activities and goals, there is little information shared about a student's mental health and well-being, and that's becoming a problem on college campuses.

Recently, Boston-area based Dr. Ilan Goldberg, has toured the commonwealth, from the Berkshires to Cape Cod, this month to present free public talks about how parents and educators can assess students' mental health in the context of college readiness, and talk about what to do should students find themselves struggling to manage college academics and life.

"'Tis the season for people to be worrying about their son or daughter, to send them back to college," Goldberg said last week during a talk in Great Barrington, Mass.

But, he said, many students and their families are unaware how and why statistically, some students won't graduate on-time, and are more at risk to drop out if they have a mental illness (diagnosed or undiagnosed). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2008, 60 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor's degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution took six years to graduate.

According to reports published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness.

NAMI has also reported almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition said they experienced a mental-health crisis on campus. Yet, 34.2 percent reported that their college did not know about their crisis. And only 7 percent of parents reported their college students as experiencing mental health issues.

Depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are the primary diagnoses of young adults. Because of the stress and anxiety and other issues that come with struggling with a mental health disorder, an estimated 64 percent of students with a mental health-related issue dropped out of college.

With college being a huge investment of time, energy and money, this has become a very complicated and confusing issue for families and colleges alike to navigate.

Goldberg said in his practice and own experiences — he's a graduate of Amherst College, McGill University and the Longwood Psychiatry Residency Training Program of Harvard University — students struggles will vary, and some can be remedied through simple strategies, while others may need longer-term care, support and guidance.

Goldberg said that some students who drop-out or take a longer time to graduate are "just academically unprepared," and that their struggles "are not because of a deficit in parenting." He said that's why it's important for families to discuss how well a student is functioning in high school, and how a student can boost their college readiness skills, whether that's developing good studying and essay writing skills, or learning how to budget and pay their own bills.

But it's also important, he said, for parents to give their students and honest evaluation of their executive functioning and social development. Important questions to consider include: Can the student do things and advocate for themselves? What are their educational goals and how do they plan to get there? Does the student have a learning disability and will they need accommodations, like notes or extra time for test-taking in college? Can the student keep their emotions in check, or does he or she have a tendency to become overwhelmed and regularly seek help from parents?

"It's a very complicated decision," said Goldberg. "Sometimes, students are not destined for academics."

In which case, he said, families should talk with their students about alternatives.

To better manage the transition between high school and college, some students simply take a break, a year off. Also known as a "gap year," this can be done informally, as a year to work and save for college or backpack around Europe, or more formally, through programs like Global Citizen Year, which are focused on giving students global experiences versus thrusting them into coursework.

The latter comes at a cost, often as much or more as a year's tuition. A year off from classes may also mean that students could have a harder time readjusting to a college class attendance structure.

Again, Goldberg said, it's all the more reason for parents to start talking with their teens and young adults now about finding the best fit.

"Parents, teachers, guidance counselors all need to be broadly thinking and have an open dialogue with the student and what their deficit and strengths are," he said. "Parents need to start getting educated on these issues and look at their son or daughter with an open mind and not be in denial if their are issues. Students need to be able to take a mindful step from high school to college."

For more information about managing a mental health condition in college, visit nami.org/Find-Support/Teens-Young-Adults/Managing-a-Mental-Health-Condition-in-College.


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