Before your college student steps onto campus this fall, there are some important things they should consider and discuss with you. Being prepared for the academic and social challenges ahead may be the most critical topic that needs to be addressed. First-year students in particular need to hit the ground running with their studies. Unlike high school, there is no “break-in” period in college. Students should expect a full lecture with every class on the first day and assignments on the first evening. If they aren’t accustomed to using a calendar, now would be a good time to start; a calendar on their desk, on a wall, or on their computer/tablet/smartphone (synced to each) will do. Socially, seeing all new faces in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells can be a little freaky-deaky. There will be new roommates (“Is she nice?” “Will he snore?”), new classmates, new professors, food that is definitely not like mom’s and dad’s home cooking, and not much privacy. The good news is that nothing that has happened in the past should be allowed to define them moving forward; this is perhaps the last time in their lives they can “clean their slate” if they so desire. College is all about learning about the world and about yourself. Freshmen should be reminded that they are still growing and their brains (especially the pre-frontal cortex) are still developing.
It is also essential that students become equipped to handle their own medical arrangements. It goes without saying that ALL immunizations should be up-to-date. This includes both meningitis vaccines (two doses of meningococcal conjugate vaccines and two doses of meningococcal serotype B vaccine) and human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines in a two-or-three dose series. Parents should be aware that failure to immunize with any of the mandated vaccines may disqualify their student from study abroad offerings, research opportunities, and internships during their college careers. (This is but one example of when choosing not to vaccinate during infancy and childhood can have some pretty serious life ramifications that don’t involve health.) Also, skipping out on an annual flu vaccine is ill-advised for any person at any age who is healthy enough to get one (practically everyone 6 months of age and older). For a college student, getting an annual flu vaccine should be a non-negotiable topic. A college student with influenza will most likely miss a week of classes and spend another week recovering, perhaps after visiting a medical provider at the student health center, a local urgent care center, or an emergency room. Parents sacrifice and spend a lot of money for their child to have this extraordinary college experience — two precious investments that are very much worth protecting.
All college students should have quick access to a copy of their immunization records and medication lists that include drug names and dosages. They should be able to tell another person about their past medical, surgical, and mental health histories, any allergies to medications, and have useful knowledge of their family’s medical history. (By the way, there’s an app for that.) Additionally, all students with learning differences and accommodations should be prepared to explain their diagnoses and learning styles to their professors and to other students who might inquire.
Self-advocacy skills are important for all students attending college. Students with special medical needs, mental health concerns, or learning accommodations need to have a plan for where to go and who to ask if a need arises. Facilities and staff should be identified prior to arriving on campus. Situations for seeking help should be rehearsed before the need arises, even if the help being sought is for someone else’s benefit. That starts by understanding the risks that lie ahead, advises Dr. Kristen Stuppy:
Based on surveys from the JED Foundation, it’s unlikely that you’ll make it through college without at least knowing one student who has a mental health disorder, has attempted suicide, abuses drugs or has experienced an unwanted sexual contact.
It’s not college that’s the problem. The risk is the age of developing independence. Believe it or not, these statistics are higher for young adults not enrolled in college.
Talk about these statistics with your parents, therapist, and/or physician. Plan what you’ll do if you or someone you know starts to struggle. Thankfully, colleges offer a lot of support for their students.
It’s a great idea to keep the suicide hotline in your phone to use in case of emergency. Whether you or a friend needs it, you don’t want to be out of a service area and unable to search for it. Put it in your contacts now.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Dr. Stuppy tells her patients heading off to college one more thing:
Many college students only go for help when someone else tells them to. If your friends and classmates recognize you struggling and tell you to get help — get help.
If you recognize that you’re struggling before anyone says something, even better! Get help.
I know that calling to make the appointment is hard. The first step always is. Once you make the appointment, it all gets easier.
College is such an exciting time. You’ll learn a lot about your academic studies, sure. But you’ll learn even more about yourself and other people.
Learn to live happily and healthily.
That includes taking care of yourself!
There is another thing all college students should do to ensure their future health and well-being: Register to vote! (Deadline to register in Pennsylvania is 10/9/18.)