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Ask The Experts

How Will My Child's Depression Be Cared for in College?


My son was diagnosed with depression this past year and he’s been in therapy and on medication for the last six months. Even though he doesn’t really like his treatment, he’s been doing much better. Now he’s applying to colleges all over the country, and I’m wondering how to make sure that he sticks with his treatment while he’s away at school.

Morton Silverman, M.D., Senior Advisor, The Jed Foundation and Suicide Prevention Resource Center answers:

Your concerns are real ones, for a number of college-bound students want to stop their treatment when they leave home for college. Many perceive college as starting over in a new environment, and assume that the troubles they experienced while in high school will not follow them when they go away to college. Many do not want to be stigmatized by taking medications for psychiatric difficulties. So there are many reasons to be concerned.

I see your approach as two-pronged. First, it is very important that you and your son work with the treating physician to understand why he is in therapy and why he is on medication. You and he need to understand how each type of treatment contributes to his feeling well, and how long he needs to remain on medications or receive therapy. In the chance that he will be ending his current treatment and therapy before or while at college, your son needs to work with the treating physician to alter or stop the medication regimen appropriately. You both also need to have a clear understanding of the warning signs that precede the onset of another depressive episode as well as the warning signs of suicidal thinking and behaviors. You need to be sure that you have an understanding with your son that he will let you know, or let another responsible adult know, when he identifies the first signs and symptoms of a returning depressive episode. You both might want to identify the anticipated stresses and strains that he will experience at college, and develop some coping strategies to assist him should they arise.

Second, as he reads up about these colleges and/or visits them, you both need to inquire about the policies and procedures the college has in place for assisting students with emotional difficulties. It would also be valuable to inquire about the presence of a student counseling center and how it operates. For example, could your son use their therapy services on a regular basis, and do they have the capacity to prescribe medications. You also should inquire about the college’s provisions for emergencies and how psychiatric crises are handled. If the psychiatric resources are limited at the college, check with your treating physician for a referral to the community where your son will reside or some plan for your son to reach a physician if needed. You might also learn about the number and level of training of residential life staff and student affairs personnel who would be coming into regular contact with your son.