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Time for Some Emotional Spring Cleaning?Marybeth Bock, MPH
Your student is away from home and they get sick. Or they call complaining of loneliness and seem depressed.
You feel helpless. You're not there to help them figure out if it’s just a simple cold, normal homesickness, or something more serious. It’s a common concern when parents send their students off to college. What will happen when my student gets sick or needs emotional support?
Rest assured that provisions have been made to protect your student's health and well-being. Colleges recognize that students will get sick, suffer injuries and require mental health support. Campus health centers offer a multitude of services from immunizations, to the treatment of common colds, flu and chronic illnesses like allergies, to providing health and wellness education.
Start by jumping on the website for your student's school. Familiarize yourself with the health resources available on their campus, including the procedure for making an appointment.
Then keep reading for answers to your top health-related questions.
If your student experiences prolonged illness that would normally send them to a doctor at home, they should visit the health center. Staff can treat ear infections, bronchitis, sore throats, allergies, dehydration from vomiting, and other common ailments.
The health services website may include an FAQ section where students can check whether their symptoms mean they should be seen by a professional rather than continuing self-care on their own. If your student has had a cold and isn't improving, or symptoms worsen, encourage them to go to the health center.
Students should take advantage of campus health services not only to maintain their own wellness, but to protect the entire student body. Colleges suggest students "stay home" (in their dorm or apartment) when sick and get well before returning to class. At the start of each term, your student should ask what to do if they miss class due to illness.
Kerry Stanhope, M.Ed., Assistant Director of the Meadows Center for Health Resources at the University of North Texas, explained that at his university, students who are ill and need medical care can make an appointment by calling the center, going in person, or using a patient portal.
Most likely your student's college will have an online patient portal. With their username and password, your student can securely communicate with providers and staff at the health center to ask questions, request prescription refills, schedule non-urgent appointments, and fill out forms and paperwork.
In addition to treating illness and injuries, a typical campus health center may provide:
"We also encourage students to take advantage of health education programming, massage therapy services, Condom Club and more," Stanhope says.
If the health center is unable to treat or diagnose your student's illness, they may be referred to a specialist or a hospital emergency room. During my daughter’s junior year in college, she broke out in a rash all over her body. The student health center could not diagnose it but, by referring her to a specialist, they helped her seek and receive the right care — a local dermatologist was able to treat her for a rare skin virus.
According to Stanhope, “Upper respiratory issues, including allergies, are the most frequent reasons students give for appointments. Reproductive health issues, including testing for sexually transmitted infections and birth control, are also common issues we see. We also see a large number of students for mental health reasons such as stress management, anxiety and depression.”
Poor sleep habits are also common among students and can cause serious health problems. "Freshmen, especially, have much more difficulty with sleeping issues," says Carol Kozel, RN, director of nursing services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They're suddenly living in a large residence hall for the first time, and people coming and going all day and night can be hard to get used to."
Stanhope observes that on his campus, “Lack of health insurance or the ability to pay for health care services is the largest problem.” Every college has its own policies regarding health care services and coverage for students. It’s your responsibility together with your student to make sure they are properly covered before entering college (most colleges require this) and also that they understand their coverage and how to access services.
Most campus health centers provide basic care for a nominal charge or even for free. My daughter obtained basic health care at her campus health clinic for a $10 co-pay, just by virtue of being a student. This was covered in her mandatory student activity fee. Information about services and costs will be available on the website.
According to Stanhope, additional areas of concern in the field of student health are “ignorance of reproductive health issues such as using condoms, routine testing for sexually transmitted infections, and receiving appropriate consent before engaging in sexual activities.” Most college health centers provide information on practicing safe sex and offer free and low-cost protection and birth control options.
This is another area where parents can help. Make time to talk with your student about sexual health and healthy relationships.
Situations arise in college that may require emergency or after-hours care. “We provide information for nurse call lines, as well as websites and phone numbers for 24-hour pharmacies, urgent care clinics, freestanding emergency rooms and area hospitals,” explains Stanhope. “We also provide some information to help students understand when to use those different facilities.”
The health services website for your student's school should list phone numbers for the nurse-on-call and local facilities. In a true emergency, your student can call campus police or 9-1-1.
The University of North Texas Wellness Center, according to Stanhope, “offers demonstrations on the appropriate use of barrier methods to prevent sexually transmitted infections, programs on developing skills and tools to positively cope with stress, and information on nutrition and fitness to help students stay healthy while at UNT.”
Counseling and mental health services are usually located near the health center if not in the same building. In addition to sponsoring one-time events focused on awareness of important health-related topics (suicide prevention, sexual consent, etc.), campus health and counseling centers schedule workshops and support groups throughout the year focused on:
When your student is sick or struggling, they should take advantage of campus health services. The health center and its website should be their first stop when experiencing any physical or mental health issue. Staff are there to help and, if necessary, refer your student to other competent local health professionals.
If you want more information about their services or procedures, you should feel comfortable calling the health center — although keep in mind that, because of FERPA and HIPAA, the college can't share information about treatment your student may have sought or received.
In conclusion, Kerry Stanhope at the University of North Texas speaks for college health providers everywhere when he says, “We encourage students to utilize their campus resources and actively work to improve their health while in college. During college is the time when students can create habits that can ensure good health for the rest of their lives.”
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