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College is challenging for everyone, but for students affected by mental illness, the adversity they face can be overwhelming. McLean Hospital is working to address the unique needs of college students with psychiatric disorders through its world-renowned College Mental Health Program (CMHP).
Established in 2008, CMHP was developed to assist college students with mental illness and adjustment issues live more productive lives by providing them with the highest level of psychiatric care. Specialists within the program work closely with students, their families, and their colleges to help students achieve academic and interpersonal success.
Building on the initial success of CMHP, this year, the program launched two new services to broaden its ability to support students living with mental illness—the college readiness consultation (CRC) service and individual coaching. CRC is designed for students with mental health concerns who are preparing to apply to colleges or preparing to return to college after a leave of absence, while individual coaching can help students who are in college right now as well as those students applying to or returning to college.
“These types of services provide education and information to students who are either seeking mental health treatment or already have a treatment team in place. They are designed to enhance, not replace, clinical care,” explained Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, director of the College Mental Health Program. “Used in concert with clinical care, however, mental health education can help a student—and their family and school—better understand the nature of their mental health condition and give them guidance on the practical steps they can take to help take care of themselves while succeeding in school.”
Pinder-Amaker noted that the CRC service is ideal for students living with mental illness who are preparing to apply to college, preparing to transition to college from high school or a gap year, taking a medical or academic leave of absence from college, preparing to return to college after time off, or contemplating a transfer to a new college.
“The CRC is a unique service that developed organically out of our continued work with college students and their families, particularly students who were having difficulty co-managing the demands of campus life and mental health,” said Pinder-Amaker. “Students at different stages of recovery come to us for help with figuring out what went wrong and how they can be better prepared to go back to school and do things more effectively.”
Pinder-Amaker added that the college environment is much different than the high school environment. Students often need to independently take on responsibilities that were formerly taken care of—partially or totally—by others, such as determining where and what to eat, when to go to bed and when to get out of bed, when to study and how much to study, and which classes to choose. Certain social pressures might also be more formidable in college, such as those related to drugs and alcohol or romantic relationships.
To address these concerns, the service’s specialists—Pinder-Amaker, Caitlin M. Nevins, PhD, and Steve Marshall, MS—evaluate a student’s readiness for college life by using state-of-the-art assessments to develop individualized recommendations.
The service also works closely with college administrators to ensure that colleges are also prepared to support students with mental illness. CMHP is uniquely qualified to help students connect with the appropriate college mental health resources available, as the program has worked with more than 200 different colleges and universities around the country.
Following this thorough evaluation process, the program team will develop a comprehensive report that assesses in detail the student’s readiness to simultaneously manage college life and current mental health concerns, provides recommendations regarding the student’s support team and roles, and provides suggestions for a seamless academic and personal transition to college.
Many students and parents also turn to individual coaching, which is offered through CMHP and addresses six skill set categories: social/interpersonal skills, executive functioning (organization and planning), navigating campus resources and policies, college transition, self-care and wellness, and parent support. Students are usually given one category to focus on, but it is not unusual to have a student who would benefit from coaching in more than one area. Students can also opt to continue individual coaching long distance, allowing for continuity throughout the college transition.
Self-care and wellness training is tailored to students who are trying to manage their identity as a student while struggling with disordered eating, substance use, or other self-care concerns. A lot of the coaching in this area is focused on relapse prevention through skills that specifically address a college context.
Executive functioning is another popular skill area for coaching. With the newfound autonomy that college presents, many students are concerned about learning how to effectively plan their day—particularly those students with executive functioning deficits. Coaching in this area addresses traditional organization tools and new technologies.
“It’s exciting to see how these services can work together,” said Pinder-Amaker. “After coaching a student for mastery of interpersonal skills, for example, we can then observe that same student using their newly developed skills in a group setting and provide immediate feedback. It’s an ideal arrangement for helping us guide our patients toward success.