The text arrived early in my daughter’s sophomore year: “Might be sick. Tired all the time.” Nothing specific, but she wasn’t feeling well.
In high school, she could stay home, curled up on the sofa, and I’d bring her soup and tea. I hated thinking of her stuck in a dorm room feeling awful or slogging her way around campus while sucking down Ibuprofen and cough medicine. How was I supposed to respond?
Your student will get sick at college. The most recent National College Health Assessment found that in the previous year more than half of college students sought treatment for health problems ranging from sinus infections and strep throat to migraines and mononucleosis. These numbers don’t even include the many students suffering from colds and flu who don’t visit the health center.
Most campuses make health services accessible and accommodating to students, and the staff understands the demands of college life.
My friend Melissa’s son was just a few weeks into freshman year when he texted, “I have mono.” He refused to come home. “He was totally in the driver’s seat,” she remembered, and she had to face the fact that she couldn’t make him rest, drink fluids and stay home from class. Even though she wasn’t certain he had the judgment to handle the situation, she made it her goal to facilitate his independence. In the end she was able to speak with campus health center staff. “I was reassured to know someone else was aware of his illness,” she said.
As Melissa’s experience highlights, there are limitations to what we can do when our students are sick. Some suggestions:
- Be supportive — your student may feel isolated and unhappy about being sick.
- Be informative — your student may need direction about over-the-counter medications, taking their temperature or when to see a doctor.
- Be empowering — this is an opportunity for your student to take responsibility for him/herself.
- Be patient — you may feel frustrated by your student’s choices about whether to go to the health center or to a party.
You may also find yourself frustrated by lack of communication. Two federal regulations, FERPA and HIPAA, can create obstacles to getting information about your student without his or her mediation or written consent. (For more information and helpful advice, read “FERPA and HIPAA — Federal Laws and Student Privacy.”)
Remember, even though college and medical staff are restricted in what they may tell you, you are not limited in what you can share with them. You can provide medical history and information that may help staff when treating your student.
When your student is home over break:
- Revisit the importance of getting enough sleep, eating well and physical exercise (more tips here)
- Go over their health history with them, including hereditary conditions and major childhood illnesses.
- Check that their vaccination record is up to date (meningococcal meningitis vaccine is highly recommended for college students, as is an annual flu shot).
- Complete a HIPAA release form; click here for one example of a free online template.
Trust is essential. First, trust that — with some guidance from you — your student will rise to the occasion and learn how to care for him or herself. Second, trust in their school. Most campuses make health services accessible and accommodating to students, and the staff understands the demands of college life. Most schools have procedures in place for dealing with common health issues. Melissa was impressed that her son’s college informed his professors as soon as he was diagnosed and he was automatically given extensions on assignments.
What will you do when you get that call, text or email? I encouraged my daughter to see a doctor and helped her think through how to keep up with classes and activities while getting extra rest. I comforted her and sent a care package. But the most important thing I did was letting her know I knew she could handle it on her own.
If your student reports feeling stressed or depressed, encourage them to seek help on campus; their mental health will directly impact their physical health. See our related article, “Your college student’s mental health — know when to get involved.”