Sidestepping Addiction at College

If you’re an adult, you probably remember well that feeling of freedom of being on your own for the first time, far from prying parental eyes. So if you have a son or daughter who’s off to college for the first time, you know they’re probably feeling exactly the same way, too.

off-to-college-main-200x200 2That swirl of freedom can make it easy to fall into the trap of drinking too much and/or taking drugs – simply because they can. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a 2013 report found that nearly 40% of college students reported binge drinking in the previous 30 days (binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion). As for other substances, the rate of current illicit drug use in 2013 was 22.3% among full-time college students ages 18 to 22.

That means that even though your “child” is in fact not a child anymore, he or she may still need some support to make a healthy transition to college life to ensure that alcohol and drug use don’t cause physical, emotional or academic harm. Here are some ways you can help you student sidestep addiction at college:

Encourage Good Self-Care

Healthy habits mean asking your son or daughter if they’re having any trouble taking care of basic needs and stressing that these are more important than socializing or even studying. “But don’t lecture,” says Joni Ogle, LCSW, CSAT, director of the young adult program at Promises Treatment Centers, in Malibu and Los Angeles, California, who suggests asking, “What do you need? What do you feel like you’re struggling with [during this transition]?” and empower your young adult to make efforts to take care of himself or herself, such as:

  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Eating well (three to five healthy meals a day)
  • Staying hydrated
  • Following proper hygiene
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Making time for relaxation
  • Seeking medical care when needed

If your young adult asks you for help making an appointment or getting a prescription, you can empower him by saying you’ll text him the number for the pharmacist and wait for him to text you back to say he made the call. Remember: Your goal is to be there to help your child while also encouraging him to build the skills he needs to take care of himself without your help.

Gently remind your young adult that students at universities sometimes resort to misusing drugs or alcohol to improve studying and alertness before tests (so-called “study drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall) and also at parties to relieve anxiety. Make sure your child understands that if they are “exhausted, stressed and not eating well, that [drug-taking and drinking are] more likely to happen,” says Victor Schwartz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University, and medical director of the Jed Foundation, a non-profit group that promotes emotional health among college students. But by taking care of basic needs, they’ll be less apt to reach for unhealthy ways of handling pressure. 

college pull quote-02It’s also important to remind your college student how important it is to find ways to balance their social life and academic demands. Mandi Silverman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, in New York City, says, “Talk to them about work, play and time management. And offer them suggestions for relaxation, such as going for walk, hanging out with friends, talking to family or going off campus when they are feeling down.” Point out, too, if you’ve had trouble balancing work and home yourself so that your child can see that you can relate to how difficult it sometimes is to juggle everything as an adult.

Be in Touch…

Consistent, ongoing communication with your child is key to enabling them to make a healthy transition to college. The most important thing is to let your child know that you want open lines of communication, says Neil Bernstein, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Washington, DC area and author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can’t. Here’s Dr. Bernstein’s advice when it comes to communicating with your college student:

  • Let your child know that it’s okay to ask for help if he or she needs it.
  • Stress that you want him or her to be honest with you, even if it’s hard to do so. You don’t have to approve of what your child does, but you do have to listen. It’s okay to tell your child that if there is something that he doesn’t want to tell you about, he probably shouldn’t be doing it.)

…But Don’t Be Too in Touch

“It makes sense to discuss ground rules for contact,” says Dr. Schwartz. “With smartphones kids stay in touch more. But set some parameters for how often you will talk.” Adds Dr. Silverman, “Very frequent, long periods of communication can be burdensome [to young adults]. Moderation is key. Contact should be consistent but not so much that the child feels disoriented if it doesn’t happen. Two, three or four times a week, for a half-hour is a good amount of time to make sure your child is well, but not too much that it becomes part of a daily routine.”

And, as most parents of college kids already know, the experts say it’s probably best if you wait for your child to call you. “That way, they feel like they are in control,” says Silverman. “And they often call while they are walking to class — those are great times to fill in with a phone call.” Bernstein suggests learning how to text and use Instagram, if you don’t already know how.

If you sense that your son or daughter is homesick, you may want to stay in closer touch, says Schwartz, for a while anyway. “But in general, it’s a good idea to be a half-step in the background. The tendency as a parent is to check in often, but model being less anxious,” he says, which can go a long way to setting the tone for a healthy transition. “Let them know you are available, but that you have faith they will be okay.”

Equally important for homesick college students is to “help your child figure out practical ways to feel better,” adds Silverman. “That could include [suggesting] going out to a meal with a roommate if they get along well or going to a ‘meet and greet’ freshman function.” 

Help for Students with a History of Addiction or Other Mental Disorders

For young adults who’ve been down the road of addiction, heavy drug use and/or have a mental health issue like profound depression or anxiety, having a transition plan in place is essential. Specifically, says Schwartz, you need to “plan on how supportive care will continue.” Here are some resources to turn to:

  • Use the student health clinic’s resources. Have your child regularly check in with the campus clinic. If he or she has a mental health diagnosis and is currently in treatment, regular counseling sessions with the campus counseling center or a local therapist or psychiatrist are a must.
  • Connect with the university’s disability services office. If appropriate, fill out a request form for disability services and send necessary medical and educational records to prove a learning disability, physical and/or mental health issue. This gives students a right to classroom accommodations that he or she had in high school such as extra time on tests, preferential seating and/or a private testing environment. What’s different in college is that your student will need to present professors with a notice of accommodations in advance of needing them and advocate for himself/ herself with the disability center’s help. Students can also refuse accommodations (which often happens), but they may need some assistance to keep up with the demands of their classes.
  • If your student is in recovery in a 12-step program, encourage regular meetings. “Most colleges have 12-step programs, so make sure your child knows where and when they are,” says Silverman.
  • Set up a plan for meds. If your college kid takes medication for a mental health or physical issue, be sure you both know how she or he will keep up with taking medication and getting refills. If regular medication checks are required with a physician in order for your child’s prescription to be refilled, make appointments ahead of time with a local doctor or for times when your child is home on a long weekend or over breaks.
  • Make an account with a pharmacy. If there’s a pharmacy near campus that’s within walking distance or accessible by campus transportation, a local pharmacy may be a good way to refill meds. Some even offer delivery services. However, if your young adult is on a campus that’s more isolated or if he or she is unlikely to refill a prescription on his or her own, consider using an online pharmacy that will ship the medication. Using a pill keeper is also a good way for your young adult to keep track of meds, so she doesn’t forget to take medication when college life gets hectic. (And be sure your son or daughter knows not to share any drugs with friends or roommates. This is both dangerous and illegal.)
This article is part of the series Off to College 2015: The First Six Weeks.” To read more about how students can make a healthy transition to campus life, click here.

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