Adjusting to college life is difficult under the best of circumstances, but for young adults prone to mental or emotional disorders, navigating college can be overwhelming. If your child has struggled with mental health issues in the past, it’s important to select a school that offers accessible, affordable mental health support and to have a plan for getting treatment. Students who have mental health resources at their disposal can be secure in the knowledge that when flare-ups occur, they can get the help they need to manage their illness, rather than suffering needlessly, or worse, giving up and going home.
When helping your child evaluate prospective colleges or university, it’s essential to do your homework, said Sara Abelson, MPH, senior director of programs for Active Minds, a national nonprofit with campus chapters for high school and college students interested in raising awareness of mental health. “Visit the school’s website, and find out what counseling services are offered,” she said. “Check that the staff is multidisciplinary and fully credentialed.” Counseling facilities are sometimes called CAPS, for counseling and psychological services.
Look, Listen and Ask Questions
As part of the research process, Abelson encourages parents and kids to visit prospective schools. Drop by the counseling center and talk with the staff. If your child has a specific issue or disorder, ask if there are special resources for the disorder and how it would be handled. Ask about psychiatric resources and cost of treatment. Some colleges will provide short-term counseling or short-term psychiatric care, but not longer-term care. If your child has issues that could require psychiatric treatment while at school and the school does not offer that treatment, you may want to consider researching off-campus providers.
Does the school have active student advocacy groups and peer-to-peer support groups? Look for meetings sponsored by Active Minds, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Alcoholics Anonymous, or other local 12 step and non-12-step programs. Talk with students about their experiences with academic pressure, social pressure and mental health support at the school, if possible.
Find a Sober School
If your child has a co-occurring problem with alcohol or drug abuse, you may want to browse the Princeton Review’s 2016 list of “stone-cold sober schools.” The list ranks the 20 driest schools in the U.S. based on surveys of 136,000 students at 380 top colleges. Not surprisingly, many schools that made the list have a military or religious orientation (Brigham Young University has been named the most sober school for 18 years running), but others on the list have no religious or military affiliation. For example, City University of New York-Brooklyn, Mills College in Oakland and Simmons College in Boston all made the list. Other top 20 lists, which appear in the review’s Best 380 Colleges guide, include schools with lowest marijuana use (winner: U.S. Coast Guard Academy), lowest beer consumption (Brigham Young) and the best health services (University of California-Davis).
Keep in mind that even after doing your research, you probably won’t find a perfect match for your child. There are drawbacks to every program. Here are additional things to look for in a college:
- Where is the CAPS facility located? Is it close to where your child will be living?
- How long is the wait between making an appointment and seeing a clinician?
- What is the cost of treatment?
- Are the clinicians professionals or graduate students?
- Does the school have at least one licensed psychiatrist?
- What is the ratio of counselors and psychiatrists to students? The international standard is one clinician for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.
- What kinds of services does the program offer? Does it cover your teen’s disorder?
- Are there student support groups for the disorder?
Most Important Type of Preparation
Ironically, in many cases finding a school with great facilities and active student support groups may not be as important as making sure that your child understands his or her issues and is prepared to get help, should trouble arise, Abelson said. And this applies to all students, not just those vulnerable to mental health issues. “In the end, transitioning to college is a stressful time for all students,” she said. “After you’ve done your research, the best way to prepare your teen for college is to make sure that they understand themselves, how they react to stress, how to recognize when they’re in trouble and how to get help.”
Sources: Active Minds, National Alliance on Mental Health, the New York Times, the Princeton Review, The Jed Foundation