An initial mental health diagnosis often occurs in college. How parents react and respond can help set the course for their child’s treatment and recovery.
College is a vulnerable time for the mental health of young adults. In fact, 75 percent of all mental illnesses are diagnosed by age 24. Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health challenges students face, with approximately eleven percent of students meeting the diagnostic criteria for anxiety, and eight percent meeting the criteria for depression. A little over three percent of college students deal with bipolar. As had been widely reported, an alarming number of college students are also experiencing suicidal ideation and self-harm.
Many students receive their first diagnosis at their school’s psychological and counseling office—as I did. Many students have a considerable wait to be seen during which time their condition may deteriorate. Mental illness is often triggered by stressful life events such as academic pressures, which was my case (along with other stresses). As such, it is important to not only consider the diagnosis, but potential factors that may create undue distress. Young adults are often in disbelief about their diagnosis and searching for an explanation.
For me, my diagnosis was a shock and created great uncertainty for my academic future and my life in general. I was diagnosed quickly, and my personal circumstances at the time were not discussed. Consequently, I dismissed my condition as temporary, caused by short-term stressors. Had I been given more context to understand my situation, I might have taken ownership of my illness and better managed its consequences from the start.
In the beginning, a student will probably lack an understanding of treatment options, but it is important to seek outside care quickly. Your child will likely not be in state to do, so you should take the initiative. You should turn to friends and family, a primary doctor, and an online health care provider directory to identify a couple of options. It might be prudent to see a medical doctor first as they can prescribe medication, which might alleviate some of the emotional distress, but these medications may take a while to be effective.
It’s good to provide a few health care provider options to let your child pick from, as this will provide a sense of control over the situation. I would have been more accepting of treatment if I had felt a sense of ownership and control in the process.
Next, focus on the greatest fear
For many students, the greatest fear is how a mental illness with impact their ability to complete their program. Try to understand what fears and concerns your child may have about their program and studies. Most importantly, listen to them and provide advice and support instead of telling your child what to do.
You may offer to speak to the academic chair of your child’s specific department to request postponement or exemption from assignments or tests. If your child allows you to make these inquiries, ask what information is OK to share. If your child is reluctant to share the specific mental illness diagnosis, you can simply explain it’s a confidential medical matter. You can check what accommodations the school and program might make to help your child deal with these challenges.
You should ask about both the best- and worst-case scenarios, including the process and implication of taking a leave. When inquiring about a leave, also inquire about the procedure of returning to college. A leave might be a practical option and help avoid drop-out, which is all too common. Thirty percent of students struggling with depression drop out. For me, I struggled through it, though in retrospect it might have been better to take a break.
Talk to your child
You should gently talk your child about how they’re feeling, but never force the conversation. Your child will talk about their diagnosis when they’re ready. Some things you might say include:
I’ll keep checking in with you;
I’m always here to listen to you;
No pressure, whenever you’re ready;
I’m here and available;
I’ll come with if you need some support;
Take as long as you need;
It doesn’t feel like it right now, but things will get a bit better soon;
Do you need some time and space;
We will overcome this together;
I’m here when you need me; and
Let me know how I can help.
Learn as much as you can about the diagnosis
Learn as much as you can about the diagnosis from reputable online sources, health care providers, and mental health not-for-profits such as NAMI. Nobody with a diagnosis likes to explain their diagnosis, especially if they don’t understand it themselves, which was my case. By learning more about it you’ll be better able to help, understand treatment options, and discuss the condition with your child.
Keep your child out of isolation, which is a great risk at this point. Depression can be a deep downward spiral. Do things that comfort your child—a home-cooked meal, a care package, an unexpected card. Focus on things that may keep your child distracted from their illness. Ask if they need any help at all.
Treat your child as if nothing has changed; don’t make them feel different. Mental illness is often all that friends and family focus on. It makes us feel like that’s all people are interested in now. Focus on your child; not your child’s illness. Make sure you tell them how much everybody loves and cares for them, and reassure your child that you will get through this together.
Pick up the slack—do chores, pay bills
Make sure to pick up any slack that may result from your child’s illness. It could be as simple as caring for pets and plants, or making sure that bills are paid. If your child breaks appointments, or plans with friends and family, explain that unfortunately they were not able to attend, but never share your child’s diagnosis. It is always best to let the person with mental illness control if/when to disclose their condition. A mental health condition is a source of shame and embarrassment for many people and stigma unfortunately is still a major force in our society.
There are many ways to support a child that has just been diagnosed with mental illness. The most important thing you can do is just be there. Give your child the love and support they need to cope with their mental illness and be the person they want to be.
Katherine Ponte, BA, JD, MBA, NYCPS-P, CPRP, is a Mental Health Advocate and Entrepreneur and lawyer. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness. You may follow ForLikeMinds on Facebook. She is on the NAMI New York City Board of Directors. She has also been living with severe Bipolar I Disorder for over 15 years and is currently living in recovery.
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