Curing campus blues
What should families ask about mental health services?
Do you provide therapy on campus? What about emergency care? Are there wellness activities to educate students about the need to sleep, about nutrition? If a school doesn't have very robust resources, it's not a very good sign in terms of the school seeing a connection between emotional well-being and academic success.
There's a window of opportunity when students are feeling really rotten, so you have to have very rapid access to care. Harvard has a triage system, borrowed from the University of Massachusetts. We have 75 appointments a week for 20 minutes--quick phone visits usually--to get a snapshot of what's going on. If someone's acutely suicidal or completely overwhelmed, we bring him right in. If someone has broken up with her 18th boyfriend and wants to talk about chronic problems with relationships, she'll be seen soon, usually within a week.
When parents see a student slip, what steps should they take?
If it's an emergency, call the local police and say, "I think my child may be at risk to hurt himself." The police will take the person to the nearest emergency room. Otherwise, it's important to be forthright and say, "I'm really concerned about you, and I'm 500 miles away. I want to check in with your proctor or resident assistant to find out how they think you're doing. If you've got worries about how that's going to affect you, let's figure out what I can say." There's a message that goes across to the student: "I'm treating you as an adult now. I want your input, but I'm not going to stand back and do nothing. That's not going to happen. When you're 60 years old, it's not going to happen."