Six Signs Your College Student Needs Help Now

While hauling my suitcase back to the garage while unpacking from the UNITE to Face Addiction Rally in Washington DC on October 4, I’d caught a glance of my daughter’s high school senior portrait on the wall in our entryway. It’s a beautiful photograph of my daughter dressed in pink, leaning across a low lying branch of an old tree aside the Deschutes River here in Bend, Oregon. Like all senior portraits, it signified a celebration of past achievements as well as those yet to come. Hard to believe that fourteen years later, that portrait can still trigger me.

Why a trigger? Well, my daughter’s launch into adulthood was an onerous time when she became addicted to alcohol and then methamphetamine, and that portrait was often an unsettling reminder of her pain and mine. In fact, there were years before her recovery when that photograph was stashed in the hall closet because I couldn’t bear to look at it.

To start her freshman year of college, my husband and I nearly pushed our daughter out the door and into our bulging SUV for the drive from our home in Oregon to Arizona State University. In spite of a history of depression, our girl was a bright and vibrant teenager, and my husband and I believed she’d flourish in a college town. I chattered with her encouragingly about college years being the best of our lives, while she nodded glumly. When we said our tearful goodbyes in her dorm room three days later, little did I know I’d be back to fetch her before semester’s end.

The red flags were many over those next eleven weeks. Some were glaring, others less so.

Warning Signs

At the time, I didn’t know then that the teens and early twenties are often when addiction takes hold. Ages 18 to 22 are also the years when major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can first manifest, according to Nathaniel Herr, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at American University in Washington, DC.

Strange or grandiose thinking is also a sign of trouble, he says, as are significant social changes.  “It’s huge,” he says, “if no social group is developed” during the early weeks at college. Depression can be a problem too, and “the best predictor of depression is a previous episode of depression.”

Dr. Herr cautions that a “tumultuous” college transition, however, does not mean you should just pull your child out of college. Instead, check in regularly with your child and don’t over-react, he says. It is inevitable that you will see changes in your child now that he’s off to college. If you perceive addiction or mental health problems, the first line of defense is to use the resources available at the college, he says.  Whether it’s academic counseling, or counseling for behavioral health, nearly all colleges and universities will have these kinds of resources for students. If problems develop, however, and your child is unwilling to be evaluated, that is reason for concern.

In hindsight, there were warnings signs that my daughter needed help. Independent of one another they may not look like much, but when you add them all together, it’s the picture of a perfect storm – of a young adult overwhelmed. I observed my daughter:

  1. Skipping classes
    It didn’t take long to determine that my daughter wasn’t attending all of her classes. She was, in fact, pretty open with us about it. It had been my college experience that most freshman are hyper-vigilant about school at least in the early weeks, taking time to figure out which classes can be safely skipped.While I didn’t like that she was skipping classes and was concerned she wasn’t managing her new independence very well, my daughter is an exceptionally bright girl. I simply told myself that she’d figure out.
  1. Having difficulty making connection
    Social media had not yet caught the world by storm, so telephone and email was our main vehicle of communication. My daughter had a land line in her dorm room, and she carried a cell phone. Yet for a girl who had always been close to her family, she rarely called. And it was difficult for us to reach her, day or night. When we did connect, her explanation was usually that she didn’t hear the phone ring … or that she was sleeping. Paradoxically, her first cell phone bill was over $500! (This was before unlimited calling became the standard in cell phone contracts.) She wasn’t calling us, but apparently spent hours each day talking with the boyfriend she missed at home.I sometimes wondered if she was actually avoiding her family. When I was able to connect with my daughter, she reported lots of drama. The friend from high school she’d gone to college with had a new boyfriend after the first week, and was with him 24/7. This was a cause of significant strain between the girls. My daughter’s anchor was gone and she was alone, and lonely, a great deal of the time. She was also arguing continuously with her boyfriend back home (thus the high cell phone bill), while simultaneously trying to capture the attention of the boy in the room next door, as well as the boy down the hall. There seemed to be no new girls with whom she was becoming close.
  1. Sleeping during the day
    My daughter often reported an inability to sleep at night, so she caught up during the day. She seemed to be tired all the time. The lack of sleep and fatigue really concerned me, but she had always struggled with sleep and been somewhat of a night owl. I knew dorms could be noisy and disruptive, and she was likely partying some, too.I partied in college. I also occasionally pulled all-nighters to study for tests and napped the next day. I rationalized that teenagers keep chaotic hours, and simply counseled my daughter to try and develop a healthy routine.
  1. Using alcohol and other drugs
    Unless one’s child is a confirmed abstainer, I think most parents expect their college-age child to experiment some with alcohol. Since I partied in college, I expected my daughter would also. What’s the big deal? Yet on one occasion, her roommate reported to her own mother that my girl was abusing Vicodin (prescribed by her doctor for cramps) and mixing it with alcohol. The mother called me with a concerned and confidential heads-up. I was of course distressed with that information, yet unable to violate her confidence and express my concern directly to my daughter. When my girl later offered me an unsolicited account of a one-time event when she took her medicine and then unwittingly “drank a couple of beers,” I was convinced it was not a chronic problem. I knew my daughter would never intentionally abuse prescription medication. That’s just not who she was.To my way of thinking, my daughter and her roommate weren’t getting along and the roommate must have been complaining to her mother… deflecting attention away from her own behavior by discrediting Annie.
  1. Experiencing ongoing homesickness and feelings of hopelessness
    College can be tumultuous for everyone, at least at times, and I remember experiencing it too. I had bouts of homesickness, and my vision of the future changed weekly.  Yet the tumult and angst that Annie shared with me had kind of a hopeless quality to it. We’d always been close, and I often helped to prop her up during times of stress and self doubt. With her now 1,000 miles away at college, I tried to provide encouragement from afar. Yet she didn’t seem to respond or rebound the way she used to. Annie was often teary when we spoke, and she just wanted to come home. She really, really, really wanted to come home, and that didn’t change as the weeks wore on as I would have expected if she was making a healthy transition.In my mind, some of her emotions seemed a textbook case for a college freshman. And I was sure the lure of the boyfriend was behind her desire to come home. She’ll be okay, I thought. They probably won’t make it until Thanksgiving… the well-known phenomenon known as “Turkey Drop,” when college students typically decide it’s time they break up with their high school heart throbs.
  1. Inflicting self-harm
    It was three weeks before semester finals and my daughter told me she was having difficulty concentrating and completing tasks. While she aced a Western Civ midterm, she flunked an important Chemistry test. Homework was piling up and she seemed overwhelmed. On top of this, she became sick with a fever and nagging fatigue and could scarcely get out of bed. Next thing I knew, this note arrived from her by email:“I am going crazy. I can hardly see the words I am typing I am crying so hard. Why am I not good enough mommy? What am I supposed to do now? I feel lost and sad and alone and like complete crap. Please help me.”I was on the phone with my daughter in an instant and directed her to call her roommate and ask her to come back to the dorm. The roommate called me when she arrived on the scene and reported that Annie was sitting on the floor, sobbing, and cutting her arms with a pair of scissors. She asked me what she should do, and I directed her to take Annie to the ER to ensure she’d be safe.There was no longer any question if my daughter’s early college experience was not normal. She needed help. I took a redeye flight to Arizona and after consulting with the hospital’s psychiatrist on-call after Annie gave her consent, decided to withdraw her from school.

What I’d Do Differently

I tried to help my daughter cope while she was away at school. The fact of the matter, however, is she simply wasn’t ready. We as parents needs to realize that just because our child is 18, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to go away to college. My girl was ready academically, but not emotionally. Also, with a history of depression, we should have had a plan in place should she need it. That is, familiarity with the school’s resources and where to go for help if she needed professional support.

When I brought my daughter home from college, my husband and I got her medical help for depression and counseling to learn how to better manage life. In retrospect, however, we should have also had our daughter evaluated for substance use disorder. She insisted the Vicodin incident was a one-time thing, and she wasn’t abusing illegal substances (yet), but drinking was admittedly a problem. It had become her way to cope, and it created all kinds of problems for her, both socially and psychologically. Treatment for alcohol abuse should have happened right then. It was years later when my daughter shared with me that she was written up for an alcohol violation her very first night in the dorm. The school never told us about it.

In truth, I didn’t understand the nature of addiction when it began. I now realize we could have taken steps to intervene sooner. But when things seemed to normalize for a time, I thought we were out of the woods… until the next time. As things played out over the next several years, alcoholism took hold in my daughter’s life in a big way, as did other addictive behaviors, including heavy use of methamphetamines. Looking back, all the warning signs were there in the early part of her freshman year during the first semester away from home.

If you’re seeing several warning signs in your own son or daughter, take Dr. Herr’s advice and turn to on-campus resources available at college to start the process of getting help early.

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