How To Evaluate The Mental Health Of A College

 

by Nancy Wolf

If you are a parent planning college visits with your high school junior or senior, your campus tours will likely hit all of the school’s hot spots – the new dorms, the upgraded fitness center and the high-tech science buildings. Your tour guide will talk about the advising system, the sports teams and the student clubs. These are all important things to know when researching Colleges.

mental-health-stigmaProbably not on your tour guide’s agenda   – Mental Health on campus.

And to be fair to your tour guide, Mental Health on campus is probably not on your parental radar either. But it should be.

Most mental illnesses- such as anxiety, bipolar and depression – emerge with symptoms for the first time between the years 18 to 25.

All students –those who have had mental health struggles in high school and those who haven’t – will be adjusting to a new environment with the temptations of late nights, a lack of set schedules and no parental monitoring of drug and alcohol use.Parents – instead of being scared off by this info (“It won’t happen to my child”) – accept that it could, and if your child does not experience a mental health struggle while in college, it is likely that one or more of his or her friends will.

Even students who sail through college on wave after wave of academic and social success may need a little support from time to time.

Here’s what to look for when evaluating the Mental Health of a campus:

All parents- and students – want a school with strong academics.

But a school where the library is open 24/7, emphasizing its academic intensity above all – or where students sport university t-shirts saying “where the fun goes to die” may be sending a clear message about campus priorities.

In the ideal world parents should look for a college or university where there is a good balance between academic rigor and the social/athletic activities that help students maintain mental health and over-all wellness. So find out the answers to these questions:

  • Does the college have an extensive orientation program?
  • Does it offer supportive academic advisors and disability services?
  • Are there peer counseling organizations and/or active chapters of mental health advocacy and support groups like Active Minds (www.activeminds.org) and NAMI on campus (www.nami.org)?
  • Does the school promote healthy eating, sleep and exercise habits?
  • Does the school train its faculty, staff and peer leaders in suicide prevention? 
  • Are programs provided on alcohol abuse, stress management and healthy relationships?

Not every college or university will tick all of these boxes but if a school tilts more to the academic, and less to the wellness side, parents should consider the impact a highly competitive, “all work no play” atmosphere might have on your child.

Quality of the Psychological Support Services on Campus

A big clue as to how responsive a college is to mental health issues is found in the quality of its psychological support services.

Your student may never need these services but if she or he does, finding out in a time of need that the services are not of high quality or are hard to access, will make a difficult situation even more so.

Most colleges and universities have separate counseling centers on campus, often called “CAPS” – Counseling And Psychological Services. Don’t assume that just because a brand name college is highly selective and offers amazing academics that it necessarily devotes the same level of attention (and money) to the services it offers in support of student mental health.

A recent article by a California mom lamented the fact that her daughter’s well-known liberal arts college boasted a new multi-million dollar dorms while the school’s CAPS remained under-funded and under-staffed with 2 week wait times for initial intake appointments.

You will need to ask some questions to research a college’s CAPS.Look first for the answers on the school’s website. But don’t be surprised if you need to inquire further to get a true picture of how students’ mental health is supported.

  • Are walk-ins available or are there waiting times for scheduling an initial evaluation? (Some schools have waiting lists of 1, 2 or 3 weeks for an intake appointment – which is not what a student in mental health need wants to hear.)
  • How soon can a student set up an individual therapy session?
  • What are the center’s opening hours? (If it closes at 5 p.m. every day, what happens after-hours?)
  • Are there limits on the number of therapy sessions (6 or 8?) per semester?
  • Who provides the counseling sessions? A staff psychologist with a Ph.D. or a grad student intern?
  • Once a student has reached the max number of on-campus sessions, what next?
  • Does the College charge extra fees for therapy sessions?
  • How is the CAPS center staffed? Is it headed by a psychiatrist? How many therapists are on staff? What are their credentials?
  • If the CAPS center lacks a psychiatrist (and many do), must a student find a mental health provider off campus for the management of medications?
  • Does the school have a 24-hour response line, a connection to a local hospital or mental health center?

It is unrealistic for parents to expect that a college or university will always be able to fully meet a student’s mental health needs. If your student has an ongoing need for therapy beyond a set six appointments, let’s say or needs complicated management of her meds, the CAPS may refer her off campus. In addition to understanding mental health services on campus, have a feel for the availability of psychiatrists close by and consider having a list of services/doctors that you may need to contact if the situation warrants it.

Choosing the “right” school for your student involves understanding beyond the basics of a school’s academics, athletics, net price, and admissions’ criteria. Look below the surface to understand how a school can  (or can not) help your student if he/she is in need of some mental health support, even if they have never needed any before.

Nancy Wolf is a lawyer with experience as a parent coach, young adult mental health advocate, and college counselor. She is a graduate of Smith College, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, and George Washington University Law School. Nancy works with parents, of young adults with mental health conditions, to plan for college and manage mental health challenges while in college. As a parent of a young adult who has had mental health challenges for a number of years, Nancy has personal experience dealing with these issues. She can be reached at nancy@yourbridgeforward.com.

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