Anxiety and 7 Ways to Help Your Struggling College Kid

As excited freshman or experienced sophomores, juniors and seniors settle in for another Fall semester around the country, I wanted to put together a quick list of 7 things parents can do to hep their college kid suffering from anxiety. It’s scary to put so much freedom and responsibility into the hands of your son or daughter when you know worry and fear is always lurking around social, academic or career decisions. Before I discuss what to do about anxiety, I think it’s important to review some details about anxiety.

Everyone feels uneasy or anxious occasionally like when we are running late for a meeting or got caught doing something we’re not supposed to. It’s a normal.

Anxiety disorders are different than regular, situational anxiousness. They are a group of mental illnesses that are characterized by intensity, duration, origin and how they impact life domains like work/school, relationships, and health.

For people who have an anxiety disorder, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be disabling. With the correct treatment, most can overcome the anxiety disorder and lead a fulfilling life.

Types of Disorders

Anxiety disorder is a broad category that includes:

  • Panic Disorder. Feeling overwhelming sense of terror or dread that seemingly strikes randomly. During a panic attack, the person may sweat, have chest pain, and feel unusually strong or irregular heartbeats. Sometimes they may feel like they’re choking or having a heart attack.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder. Also known as Social Phobia, this is when someone feels overwhelming worry or judgement while in social situations. They may obsess over others judgment or being embarrassed or ridiculed.
  • Specific Phobias. This is when someone has a very specific fear of something such as spiders, heights or flying. The fear goes beyond what’s appropriate based on actual risk and may cause them to avoid regular situations.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is what I see most when working with college students. They describe having excessive, unrealistic worry and tension with little or no reason.

Risks

Early signs of anxiety are super subtle and include distractability, avoidance and sleeplessness. Students with anxiety disorders often report to me that semesters generally start fine but as papers, tests and social pressures mount, their anxiety builds to the point where they start consider drastic changes like dropping out of school. Untreated anxiety can lead to depression, severe drug use and in some instance, suicide. Anxiety and depression seem to be best friends, often presenting together in college students I’ve worked with. 

What to Do

Though anxiety disorders can make someone feel hopeless, there are very effective treatments and interventions we can implement to get their life back on track. Here are the 7 I think are most important for parents to be aware of if they need help with their college kid.

1. Counseling

Right out of the gate, the first thing parents should do is link their child with a) campus health services (often called Counseling and Psychological Services or CAPS) and b) a therapist or counseling like me specializing in college student anxiety in the community close to campus. Ideally, find a therapist/counselor that uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Waiting until the first big meltdown could be too late. Loads of freshman fail to share their struggles with their parents until Thanksgiving and Christmas which, by then, is too late in their minds and they end up not returning for their Spring semester. Invest the time on the front end.

2. Scheduling

Anxiety is fed by fear. Fear is often the by-product of lack of predictability about social events, academic outcomes, and career failures. One solution is increasing predictability. I accomplish this with students by teaching them to download the semester schedule onto their phone calendars before the semester starts. Next, after they’ve received their syllabi, I coach them to put in every single date for every single assignment/test possible. This also includes social events and any non-academic stuff they know about. This may sound like it could be overwhelming, but I’d rather have them feel a bit overwhelmed when looking at the calendars rather than anxious about remember when that next big thing is due.

3. Resources

Not the most used suggestion but one we have to put here – make sure your son or daughter has a list or access to resources that can help them reduce stressors or mitigate things when they’re already starting to spiral down. These resources could include the academic supports found at nearly every university or within the community. Universities have a vested interest in making sure your son or daughter doesn’t bail at semester’s end. Another form of ‘resource’ is the on-call list. Create a formal or informal list of people they can call/text when they are starting to feel overwhelmed. I am on-call for all of my clients and often receive texts from students the night before big tests asking for help in quiet their brains down. I call them or text back strategies and remind them to call if they want to talk through things in more detail. Just knowing there is a safety net and team of support can have a dramatic reduction effect on anxiety.

4. Medication

I am super conservative with medication use and recommendations for students I work with at Indiana University. But, with that said, we also recognize that some folks simply need a bit more support than what counseling and academic support can provide alone. If your college does not have a psychiatrist on staff, we highly recommend finding one in the local community. We rarely encourage use of primary care physicians or nurse practitioners for medication management since they are not specifically trained to diagnose and medically treat those suffering from anxiety. You also want your college kid to work with someone who genuinely understands the risk of some medications that have the potential for addiction. Good kids get hooked on meds the same as bad kids. It’s also important to avoid illegal or non-prescribed drugs (like the roommate’s Xanax).

5. Meditation

I recommend to nearly every client to start participating in weekly yoga, meditation or mindfullness classes. This is an evidence-based approach with only positive side-effects. Plus, every college offers these in their wellness programs for free so encourage your kid to take advantage and put it into the calendar. Meditation, counseling and medication are an incredibly complimentary approach to combating anxiety.

6. Sleep

Not easy when kids have more freedom than ever away from home but we nonetheless push parents to encourage sleep. Not binge sleeping but a healthy 8 hours per night. The ideal for anxiety reduction is a steady sleep pattern so that bedtime and wake time are pretty standard every day. Staying up late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, sleeping in till 1:00pm and then dragging out of bed Monday morning for an 8:50am class is terrible for anxiety.  Sleep meds only make things worse and really should only be taken with the psychiatrists oversight.

7. Exercise

Encourage your kid to sign up for the intramural leagues, especially for sports where there is little standing around time. Distraction and flow experience are essential in helping him or her focus on non-academic activities. It’s also a great way for them to be social without needing a drink in their hand.

Ok folks. Hope this helps you figure out the best way to help that college kid who may be struggling as you’re getting through the fear of letting go. It’s an exciting time and, with the right strategies in the beginning, can be the start to a fantastic semester.

Mental Health Support on College Campuses: What Parents Need to Know

Most larger universities like Indiana University (close to where my office is located) have health programs called CAPS which stands for Counseling and Psychological Service. They are often staffed with licensed therapists/counselors and psychiatrists with a range of experience and expertise. Their primary goal is to act as a stabilizing resource for most mental/behavioral health or substance use issues. Many university CAPS typically offer individual, group and couples counseling along with occassional free workshops. Here’s the list from IU CAPS on what they typical help with:

  • Academic Concerns
  • Relationship Concerns
  • Stress Management
  • Power and Privilege
  • Time Management Help
  • Sleeping Issues
  • Adjusting to College Life
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance Use
  • Body Image, Eating, and Exercise Concerns
  • Sexual Assault or Abuse

They have the same confidentiality requirements as counselors like me off campus but are limited in many ways. CAPS limits the number of unpaid sessions (IU CAPS allows for two) and mandates that a student must be working with one of their counselors if they want to meet with a psychiatrist for medication management/evaluation. Here’s a breakdown of IU CAPS fees:

COUNSELING  With IU Health Fee  W/O IU Health Fee
First two sessions (per semester) No charge $55 per session
Additional full sessions $30 per session $55 per session
Additional half sessions $20 per half session $35 per half session
Additional group counseling $15 per 60 min. session

$17 per 90 min. session

$29 per 60 min. session

$35 per 90 min. session

PSYCHIATRY
First visit $55 $105
Follow-up visit $30 per visit $55 per visit

IU CAPS does not accept insurance but does provide a super detailed invoice to be submitted to a student’s insurance company for reimbursement.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed many CAPS programs around the country have had a huge increase in demand for their services while also having budget cuts or mediocre increases that leave them without the full team of professionals they need for each semester. At IU CAPS, every one counselor is responsible for 2,110 students (yikes!). This is not a new problem at IU and not isolated to IU.

So what can a parent or student do? If CAPS doesn’t seem like a good option, look for a therapist/counselor convenient to campus who specializes in college students. Therapists should be flexible to accommodate busy course loads and social events. In my practice, I have extended evening and weekend hours since many students a slammed with class 9-4pm most days. It’s also important that the therapist be willing to talk with parents and provide updates and suggestions. Parents can sometimes feel like their kids are a million miles away. A good therapist can often act as a bridge and lower the anxiety associated with having kids at school.

Finally, talk with CAPS (or encourage your son or daughter to) the first week of school. It’s easier to cancel an appointment than to stand in line after all the students are back on campus. The intake process should be thorough and your kid shoul feel like the therapist/counselor will really understand their issues and help.

Insider’s Guide: Top 5 Things for Your College Student Transitioning to Fall Semester

Most of the students with whom I work have depression, anxiety and mild substance abuse. One of the easiest, cheapest and most effective tools for combating these struggles in college is detailed planning. Below, I’ve outlined the Top 5 things I tell every student to implement as they are showing up for Fall semester.

  1. Syllabi Dates. Encourage your college student to plug-in all dates into their calendar from the syllabi they receive over the coming days. Once all the test dates are put in, reverse engineer two weeks prior to the test dates and put study dates into the calendar for no longer than 90 minute chunks. If it’s not scheduled, it will get pushed off till the last minute.
  2. Professor Office Hours. Everyone will want to meet with professors the Thursday and Friday before Thanksgiving. Have your above-average college student pull their professor’s office hours from the syllabus (yes, all professors put office hours on there) and plug into the calendar.
  3. Download Your University’s Academic Calendar. In June, I downloaded the Indiana University’s academic calendar for Fall 2016. It is a small file from Indiana University’s Academic page for any student or parent to view or download. Once downloaded, your college student can upload it into their calendar. Now, they’ll know Add/Drop dates, Fall Break, Winter Break, Finals, etc.
  4. Don’t Talk Every Day. Plan to talk 2x/week – (eg. Wednesdays and Saturdays). It’s time to intentionally create more autonomy, build trust, and not feel like you need to hover over them.
  5. Set up Counseling Early. Counselors and mental health providers get slammed since there are so few of us in most college towns. There are even fewer psychiatrists for medication management. Start looking for a counselor/therapist now before the semester gets in full swing. Psychiatrists are often scheduled out 2-3 months.

Good luck and please reach out for more suggestions and strategies to mitigate the challenges your college student is facing with depress, anxiety or substance abuse. Don’t go it alone.

5 Signs of Suicide Risk in College Students

FACT: 15% of graduate and 18% of undergrads have seriously considered attempting suicide

FACT: 15% of graduate and 18% of undergrads have seriously considered attempting suicide

There is nothing more exciting than dropping of your college freshman in late August as the cool nights of Autumn return. But not all students carry with them the same energy and positive outlook for the Fall. Some are carrying some heavy baggage from High School or even younger while others don’t start to develop any major issues until they first get to college (and their first taste of freedom from parents). What parents don’t know is that you likely know your college friends (or at least a side of them) better than their own parents do, and you may be able to tell that something is wrong way before anyone else. This quick list is as much for parents as it is for you students out there. 

The following signs might indicate a student is considering suicide:

  1. A good student who’s behavior suddenly changes – they start ignoring assignments and missing classes which are likely signs of depression or drug and alcohol abuse, which can affect their health and happiness and put them at risk of suicide. And yes, good students and good kids use drugs. Seriously. 
  2. Anyone who doesn’t have friends or who suddenly rejects their friends may be at risk. A friend who suddenly rejects you, claiming, “You just don’t get it,” may be having emotional problems.
  3. College students may be physically or emotionally abused by a member of their family or their girlfriend or boyfriend – or suffering from abuse that occurred long ago but triggered by the new college environment. Abusive relationships can make a college student feel like crap about themselves. Signs that a person may be in an abusive relationship include unexplained bruises or other injuries that he or she refuses to discuss. 
  4. This is a common one – Significant changes in a someone’s weight, eating or sleeping patterns, and/or social interaction style may indicate that something is wrong. Eating disorders are super common at college. Lot’s of perceived competition, anxiety and stress that translates into really unhealthy views of one’s self. 
  5. Coming Out? College students may suffer from depression or have thoughts of suicide if they have a difficult time adjusting to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students have higher suicide attempt rates than their heterosexual peers.

We understand regret and their could certainly be a real consequence of getting help for someone who seems to be really hurting. They might get pissed at you for not minding your own business. But think of it this way – is the regret of possibly losing a friend better or worse than the potential of knowing you could have saved your friend’s life but did nothing? Tough choice but that’s part of the burden of mental illness. 

Virginia Senator Deeds Stabbed by Son (…And How it Could Have Been Avoided)

Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds was Stabbed by his 24 year old son Austin (Gus) Deeds  who then killed himself with a shotgun at their rural home just West of Charlottesville, Va.. Austin Deeds had just been ‘psychologically’ evaluated just hours before at Bath Community Hospital under an Emergency Custody Order (ECO). The ECO is only good for 4 hours with a possible 2 hour extension if ordered by the magistrate.  Hospital staff stated, working within the maximum 4 hour window, they were unable to find a treatment facility to address Austin Deeds’ psychiatric needs despite several hospitals reporting they did in fact have availability.

Here is some analysis/questions from someone (me) that’s been in this profession for years. I also provide some ideas of solutions if you know of someone struggling with a similar situation:

1. Diagnoses: If the hospital was looking for a treatment facility this means that something the evaluator found indicated Austin was either a threat to himself or others or needed a a level of medical intervention not available at the current hospital. I’m also thinking about the type of evaluation that was conducted and why it was even done at BCH, what the evaluator’s credentials are, and how it was reviewed with Austin and his family. 

2. Discharge: If there were no options (which there clearly were), I wonder if and how the hospital communicated their findings from the evaluation as well as their concerns about safety to the parents and authorities. I’m also wondering what kind of discharge meeting took place. When a client is stepping down from a hospital or residential setting, we always facilitate a comprehensive treatment team meeting to talk about discharge so everyone leaves understanding what the next steps are – action steps. When we work with families struggling with similar issues, we don’t wait for the hospital to give updates. But as mental health professionals, we are able to navigate the bureaucracy much easier and get clear answers much faster. 

3. Responsibility: Providers, whether big hospitals or little, ole’ therapists, have an ethical and legal responsibility to communicate to authorities if a patient is in eminent danger. So who is responsible here? If you ask the hospital, they’ll probably point fingers until the next news cycle. If you ask an attorney, they’ll go through the policy and procedures for the hospital regarding intake, evaluations, referrals, discharge, etc. and anyone of making decisions in that chain could be liable.

4. Intervention (Placement Options): The hospital staff at BCH clearly did not consider referring outside of the traditional placement list (psych beds at hospitals). It’s unlikely that it was due to financial constraints and certainly not due to a lack of treatment centers as some have speculated (Yes, there are certainly a lack of medicaid-funded psych units in VA). There are facilities all over the country that are extremely well-equipped to accept, stabilize and work with patients just like Austin. Most hospitals, though, follow a tired, out-dated protocol of calling three near-by psych hospitals to find out if they have a bed avail. If they here no at all three, patient is discharged with a list of therapists to contact to set up an appointment. Sound ridiculous? You’re right. 

5. Solutions: In my humble opinion, Austin would be alive today if earlier intervention had been provided by a treatment team including a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, and case manager. The psychologist provides the initial psychological evaluation to identify the issues, what is causing them, and create a specific list of interventions for the rest of the team. The psychiatrist (though in limited supply in Bath Co, VA) performs an initial psychiatric (medical/medication) evaluation and identify what, if any, medication is necessary to compliment any individual counseling being performed. The therapist provides weekly counseling either in-office or in the family’s home to address areas identified within the psychological evaluation. The case manager is the project manager for everyone and is on-call 24/7. This person also facilitates regular treatment team meetings to ensure updates are provided to the family and all professionals. For instance, if the therapist starts seeing signs of bizarre thinking patterns which are historically correlated with dangerous behavior, the case manager can alert the rest of the team and monitor the client more closely while also increasing the frequency of support. If a higher level of care (ie. psychiatric hospitalization) is recommended by any member of the team, the case manager not only identifies a placement but completes all intake paperwork. The case manager also provides psychoeducation to the family to help them understand the client’s diagnoses and what they can do to most effectively support him. 

If you or someone you know is in a similar mess, do not assume your local hospital has the expertise to handle the situation. Contact a mental health professional to find services that can manage the entire project from assessment to placement to discharge and aftercare. 

Treatment 101: Therapeutic Boarding Schools and Residential Treatment Centers

Today we examine some of the basic differences and similarities between therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment centers (or programs).

 

THERAPEUTIC BOARDING SCHOOLS

Also known as Emotional Growth Boarding School (not used so much any more), is a boarding school based on the therapeutic community model that offers an educational program together with specialized structure and supervision for students with psychological, behavioral, substance abuse, or learning difficulties. Another newer term is Academy which lends some gravitas and impressions of legacy. Basically, it sounds fancier. 

In contrast with Residential Treatment Centers, which are more clinically focused and primarily provide Behavior therapy and treatment for adolescents with serious issues, the focus of a TBS is toward emotional and academic realignment involving clinical and academic oversight for physical, emotional, behavioral, family, social, intellectual and academic development. Therapeutic and educational approaches vary greatly; with the approaches best described as a combination of interventions often based on the founders’ perspective. The typical duration of student enrollment in a TBS range from one to two years with many schools mandating a minimum stay of at least 1 year. Students may receive either high school diplomas or credits for transfer to other secondary schools. Some therapeutic boarding schools hold educational accreditation within their respective states. TBS’s may be for-profit or non-profit entities and might also be owned by a much larger company (eg. Aspen Education Group, Red Cliff Ascent, Universal Health Services to name a few). 

Therapeutic boarding schools are generally middle schools and high schools that have comprehensive therapeutic interventions (medication management, individual/group counseling, life skills) for the students and a program to help them with self-esteem and problem behaviors. Some are more therapeutic than others while some boarding schools are actually therapeutic but will not list themselves in that category to avoid any negative connotation. 

Most of the therapeutic boarding schools do not have a medical plan for bipolar disorder, and do not provide psychiatrists on staff. If you want your child to attend a therapeutic boarding school he or she needs to be stable enough to attend school with therapy support (typically includes individual counseling 1-2x/wk, group counseling 1-2x/wk and 1 weekly phone conference with parents/therapist), while maintaining a relationship with an outside psychiatrist. Additionally, some schools do not wish to administer psychotropic meds. Ask the admissions folks if this is something important for you. 

 

RESIDENTIAL TREATMENT CENTERS

Sometimes the school that best meets the child’s needs just doesn’t exist anywhere near home, or the child may become too unstable to stay at home and attend school. It may become painfully obvious that a change in environment with a twenty-four-hour peer group and non-parental authority figures may help the child grow and mature in a safe environment. Maybe they are a danger to themselves or others and they need to be in a setting that can monitor their illness and behavior, as well as provide them with tools to understand and deal with their illness while not losing ground in school.

Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs) are medical facilities (most of the time). They should have psychiatrists and nurses on staff. They administer medications, make medication adjustments, and provide therapy and schooling. They are required to follow a student’s IEP.

Residential schools can cost anywhere from $56,000 to over $125,00 per year. A school district may pay part or most of the fee of such a placement, but typically only after a due process hearing. This process is not recommended for parents – Definitely bring in professional support for this (yes, a case manager or educational consultant with expertise in IEP/504 process and laws within your state). 

If you have not noticed the theme, here it is – Parents should ask for help from a clinical case manager or educational consultant. While the vetting and application may seem like an easy project for accomplished parents, the timing, financial and clinical complexities can create significant challenges. The case manager should have any professionals working with your child contribute to the discussion on placement strategies and options. Leave this to the professionals. It costs money on the front end but will save you thousands of dollars over months and years and also help you to understand your child, family and the education/psychological process much better. 

Here are some additional resources:

The Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare): How it impacts Mental Health and Substance Abuse Service

The Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare) has been ramping up over the last few months and goes into full-throttle (Health Insurance Marketplace enrollment starts October 1, 2013). Here are some of the important changes the healthcare law impacts. 

Expansion

The Affordable Care Act will expand mental health and substance use disorder benefits  and parity protections for 62 million Americans. Mental health and substance use disorder services: This includes behavioral health treatment, counseling, and psychotherapy, prescription drugs. It also covers services and devices to help you recover if you are injured, or have a disability or chronic condition. This includes physical and occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, psychiatric rehabilitation, and more. The healthcare act also includes a huge Medicaid/Medicare expansion to provide coverage to millions more Americans currently without insurance. Here are just a few other bullet points of the healthcare act going into effect soon: 

• National goals have been set to identify and reduce mental health care disparities in the U.S.

• More federally-qualified mental health care facilities will be made available and funded.

• There will be an increased focus on telemedicine, which will facilitate mental health services and collaborative efforts from a distance, through the use of telecommunication technologies.

• Additional funding will be allocated to mental health organizations, such as SAMHSA.

• State Health Homes will be made available for individuals recovering from substance abuse and mental health disorders.

• School-based mental health programs will be initiated for child mental health care.

• Grants will be allocated exclusively for training more mental health care professionals.

• No-cost and low-cost preventative screenings will include mental health services.

• Mental health benefits will be included in the Medicaid expansion.

Prevention

Most health plans must now cover preventative services like depression screening for adults and behavioral assessments for children at no cost. All Marketplace plans and many other plans must cover the following list of preventive services without charging you a copayment or coinsurance. This is true even if you haven’t met your yearly deductible. This applies only when these services are delivered by a network provider.

Pre-Existing Conditions

Starting in 2014, health insurance plans will not be able to deny clients customers coverage or charge extra for pre-existing health conditions including mental illness. 

Let’s Talk Access

Access through for those un- or under-insured is through Exchanges. Exchanges are set up through state websites designed to make it easy for people to find health coverage. Each state will have one. The District and 16 states, including Maryland, are running their own exchanges. The rest are either partnering with the federal government or, as in Virginia’s case, relying on the federal government to operate their exchanges. To find the correct site, go to www.healthcare.gov.

To learn more about how the Affordable Healthcare Act may impact services with Fonthill Counseling, please contact us with specific questions or concerns.