Keeping College Freshmen on Course

Attention to their mental health can be essential

Going to college is much more than an academic endeavor. The undergraduate years are as much about growing up, maturing, and discovering oneself as they are about school and career. And how your child is nurtured at school could make the difference between a successful college experience and a disastrous one.

That's especially true for freshmen, who must make wrenching adjustments that challenge even the most emotionally healthy students. Joel Epstein, senior associate of the Education Development Center, a resource for schools, says the pressures of leaving home, juggling a rigorous academic schedule, and having unrealistic expectations take a toll on many young people. So when choosing a school, you want to know what kind of emotional support your child can expect--and what mental-health services are available in case a crisis arises and your child needs professional help.

Many colleges and universities are sensitive to the transition issues their first-year students face. The University of South Carolina has developed a semester-long course for freshmen called University 101 that teaches everything from time-management skills to understanding sexual behavior. The course is not required for most majors, but two-thirds of students taking it do so voluntarily. "It helps you to stay on track and to adjust to things, to change your career goals while you learn about yourself and how you are changing," says Jill Griffenhagen, 21, a recent grad. About 1,000 U.S. schools offer similar programs, and they're worth inquiring about when shopping around.

South Carolina's research shows that students who take University 101 have a higher grade-point average than their peers and report more responsible sexual behavior (as measured by abstinence or use of condoms). They are also more likely to seek out a faculty mentor or academic adviser to whom they can turn if a problem arises. "If they take the course," says Dan Berman, the program's director, "they will never be alone. The students feel very connected."

In fact, studies show that a strong student-faculty connection is crucial to success in college. So examine how committed the school is to involving faculty in students' lives. Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., for example, gives faculty members a stipend to spend on entertaining students. Its president, Thomas Cronin, regularly invites students to dinner.

Carleton Kendrick, a resident family therapist at, an online resource sponsored by the Learning Network, says parents should ask how often their child will be required to meet with the school's academic adviser. "Freshmen should see an adviser at least a couple of times in the first semester. That's like a well-baby visit. You need to keep tabs," he says. If the school does not require such meetings, you and your child can take the initiative to schedule regular one-on-one sessions.

Grade pressure is a major cause of student meltdown. To address this problem, colleges should give tests throughout the semester instead of just midterms and finals and make sure teachers talk to students individually about their work, according to a recent study, Campus Mental Health Issues: Best Practices, by the Education Development Center. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) goes further, offering only pass or no-credit grades for all first-year courses.

ROOMATE RELIEF. MIT is also changing its housing policy to remove the pressure many freshmen face in finding a place to live. Starting in 2002, the school will require incoming students to live in assigned dorms. Now, freshmen often pledge at fraternities and wait for acceptance before they know where they will reside. At other schools, students can choose same-sex dorms or housing where everyone pledges to remain substance free.

Whether a school offers a nurturing environment or not, some students are bound to become overwhelmed. The feeling can lead to harmful behaviors, such as excessive drinking or drug abuse, or serious mental-health problems, such as depression.

As a parent, you want to know that if your child does break down, someone will be there to help. So when you're researching schools, find out about the college counseling center and exactly what services it provides. "There should be people who can tell you the capacity to diagnose mental illness and if they are capable of providing medication and rendering short-term treatment," says Kendrick of Don't leave it up to the school to tell your child where to find help. Be sure to include a visit to the mental-health center when you tour the campus.

The University of Oregon's facility is typical. It sees about 3,000 students a year in individual, couples, and group therapy. The staff runs seminars on eating disorders, relationships, and stress and time management and works closely with dormitory residence advisers and faculty. The cost of treatment is included in student activities fees.

Robin Holmes, a clinical psychologist who is the center's director, is currently assisting a freshman who was severely depressed. "I helped him take a leave for a term so he could calm down. When he comes back to school, he can see me and we can work on balancing the pressures of being in school for the first time," she says. Holmes works with a psychiatrist so that the student can receive the proper medication for his treatment.

KEY QUESTIONS. Of course, students stand a greater chance of staying grounded if they pick the right school in the first place. Your child needs to look beyond glitzy advertisements and positive word of mouth and ask some key questions: Does the campus have one main culture, or does it accommodate diversity? Are endless days of overcast skies going to affect my mood? Will being in a small town make me feel secure or stir crazy? Will a large-city environment cause fear or excitement?

When a college and a student click, the stage is set for the student to flourish. The T-shirt that 18-year-old Clara Brand is wearing reads: "This Is Where Fun Comes To Die," but she exudes cheer. "I am unusually happy," says Brand of her experience as a first-year student at the intellectually rigorous University of Chicago, which has a brutal core curriculum. But in case things change, she knows--thanks to posters all over campus--that she can call a crisis hotline for help.

By Elaine S. Silver

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