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For Students With Mental Health Issues, Transition To College Is Complicated

Sep 12, 2015
Originally published on September 12, 2015 7:09 pm

All over the country, high school graduates are making the jump to college. They're getting to know their roommates, buying supplies, and saying tearful goodbyes to parents.

It's a stressful time for any family, but consider this: For the growing number of students dealing with mental health issues, it can be a terrifying transition. Sometimes, it raises the question: Is college really an option?

That's the case with Luis, a bright young man from Virginia with a brain injury and bipolar disorder.

I first met Luis in late June — on the day of his high school graduation. (To protect his privacy, we're using only his middle name.)

His forehead was moist with sweat from his blue cap and gown and the muggy southern heat — but mostly, because he was nervous.

"School has been the thing that is constant, throughout my entire life, that I remember," he said.

For a lot of kids, this is a bittersweet occasion: Saying goodbye to friends and looking towards college. For Luis, leaving high school means jumping into the unknown.

The next day, we talked again in his dark living room, as he strummed on his guitar. Excitement had given way to concern, he said: "Everything is different."

Luis seems like the type of kid who should be headed straight to college. "I enjoy economics a lot," he says. "I play the bass guitar, the piano, the trombone, the guitar a little bit."

He tells me he's been grappling with depression his whole life. But it was a head injury during his sophomore year that changed everything. Suddenly, college became a big question mark. Getting through high school became the one goal.

Doctors say it's going to take his brain years to heal. When I spoke to Luis, he was on Olanzapine and Hydroxyzine, as needed, for anxiety.

"Before the brain injury I never took notes. I sat in class, I listened to what the teacher said, and I absorbed it beautifully," Luis says. "And I always got amazing grades on tests."

Now, it doesn't work like that. And academics aren't the only problem. "One of the things that is definitely challenging is my rage," he says. "I have a much shorter fuse."

Beth, Luis' mom, told me when the rage hits, it's more than just a "short fuse."

"He wants to kill himself," she says, sobbing.

In the past year, she's had Luis hospitalized several times.

"I get scared," she says. "Because I don't know if this is the time he'll go through with it."

Speaking to mother and son separately, it's disconcerting, the gap between their perceptions of how serious the situation is. Beth is terrified. She's already working two jobs to pay Luis' health bills. Each hospitalization costs between $1,500 and $2,000.

"There's a moment, for a second, that I think, 'I'm not a very good mom,' " she says. "Because I think, 'Wait, how is this going to affect what I'm trying to give him?' I just can't seem to get out of the hole."

Luis does see the way to get out: college. "I look at my mental illness as something that spiritually I have to be able to handle on my own," he says. "I'm definitely going to go to college, regardless of whether the system is in place."

Seeking Support On Campus

So, what systems are in place? I called up Vanessa Caldwell Jenkins. She's the director of the counseling center at Norfolk State University, in Norfolk, Va. I asked her what kind of options a student like Luis has if he should go to college.

"All college campuses have disability services," she told me. "So Luis needs to go into disability services, because that gives him his reasonable accommodations they need to give him by federal law. He has a right to those: If he needs more time for testing ... if he needs to be in a different room because he gets anxiety ... whatever that is."

Caldwell Jenkins suggested other key steps. Mainly, Luis and his mom need to research what counseling services schools offer, and meet in person with the counselors. Make Luis a familiar face, she says, adding that a lot of schools have support groups. And she also encourages students to sign a disclosure allowing parents access to information about their kid's mental health.

Parents, she adds, also need to seek support groups for themselves. And they need to learn to let go a little bit. "A part of growing up, and also expanding as a young person," Caldwell Jenkins explains, "is that you slowly, gradually get them out there."

Beth says she gets that. "He wants his independence, he wants to go out and do this, which is the right thing at his age to do," she says.

But she still worries about the little things: the ups and downs of college life, the stress, the experimenting. Thing that barely make a blip in most college students lives could unravel Luis'. "One little mistake, as we've learned," she says, "can cost so much."

In the weeks after I meet them, Luis has to be hospitalized, twice. Beth tells me he misses his friends who've moved out. She says she's thinking of quitting one of her jobs, just to spend more time with him.

But they also sound happier. Beth joins a support group. Luis is a lot calmer. The medication seems to be working. Luis got a job — he hopes to save some money, and apply to colleges very soon.

Things are still uncertain, but, Beth says, she sees a light.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

All over the country, recent high school graduates are adjusting to college life. It's a stressful time for any family, but consider this - for the growing number of young people dealing with mental health issues, it can be a terrifying transition. Sometimes it means deciding to not go to college at all. NPR's Jasmine Garsd spent some time with a young man from Virginia who has bipolar disorder and a brain injury and is also trying to figure out how to get himself to college.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: I first meet Luis in late June. His hairline is moist with sweat from the muggy southern heat in his blue cap and gown, but also because he's nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION CEREMONY)

GARSD: He's about to graduate from high school.

LUIS: School has been the thing that is constant throughout my entire life that I remember.

GARSD: For a lot of kids, this is a bittersweet occasion - saying bye to friends and looking towards college. For Luis, leaving high school is jumping into the unknown. And to protect his privacy, we're only using his middle name.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: Sitting in his dark living room, Luis strums on his guitar and tells me about his passion.

LUIS: Theater - I'm an actor.

GARSD: The day after graduation, the excitement has given into concern. Now that it's done...

LUIS: Everything is different.

GARSD: The thing is, Luis seems like the kind of kid who should be heading straight for college.

LUIS: I enjoy economics a lot. I play the bass guitar, the piano, the guitar, the trombone a little bit.

GARSD: He's soft-spoken but charming, even as he explains how he's been grappling with depression his whole life. And in his sophomore year, a head injury.

LUIS: Before the brain injury, I never took notes, I sat in class, I listened to what the teacher said, and I absorbed it beautifully, and I always got amazing grades on tests.

GARSD: Doctors say it's going to take his brain years to heal.

LUIS: Olanzapine or something. And I'm on as-needed anxiety medication, hydroxyzine.

GARSD: Plans for college went out the window. For the time being, getting through high school became the one goal. It wasn't just the academics.

LUIS: One of the things that is definitely something that is challenging my everyday life is my rage. I have a much, much shorter fuse.

BETH: Since he started the medicine, I see him again. I mean, he is naturally talented I feel.

GARSD: That's Beth, Luis's mom. She says when the rage hits, it's more than just a short fuse.

BETH: He wants to kill himself.

GARSD: In the past year, she's had her son hospitalized several times.

BETH: I get scared because I don't know if this is the time that he's going to go through with it.

GARSD: Speaking to mother and son separately, you get two very different stories. Beth is terrified. She's already working two jobs to pay Luis's health bills. Each hospitalization cost between 1,500 and 2000 dollars.

BETH: There's a moment, for a second, that I feel like I'm not a very good mom because I think, wait, what is this going to - how's this going to affect what I'm trying to give him? I just can't seem to get out of the hole.

GARSD: Luis does see the way to get out.

LUIS: I look at my mental illness as something that, spiritually, I've got to be able to handle on my own. I'm definitely going to go to college regardless of whether or not this system is in place.

VANESSA CALDWELL-JENKINS: All college campuses have a disability services.

GARSD: That's Vanessa Caldwell-Jenkins, director of the counseling center at Norfolk State University in Virginia. I called her up to find out what kind of options someone like Luis has should he go to college.

CALDWELL-JENKINS: So Luis needs to enroll in disability services because that gives him his reasonable accommodations they need to give him by federal law. He has a right to go, meaning if he needs more time for testing, if he needs to be in a different room when he's testing because he gets anxiety. Whatever that is.

GARSD: Caldwell-Jenkins suggests other key steps. Mainly, she says Luis and his mom need to research what counseling services different schools offer and meet in person with the counselors - make him a familiar face. She says a lot of schools have support groups, and she also encourages students to sign a disclosure, allowing parents access to information about their kid's mental health. Parents also need to seek support groups for themselves, and they need to learn to let go a little bit.

CALDWELL-JENKINS: Part of growing up and also expanding as a young person is that you slowly, gradually get them out there.

GARSD: Beth gets that.

BETH: He wants his independence. He wants to go out and do this, which is the right thing at his age to do.

GARSD: But she still worries about the little things - the ups and downs of college life, the stress, the experimenting, things that barely make a blip in most college student's lives but could unravel Luis's.

BETH: It's just one tiny mistake, as we've learned, can cost so much.

GARSD: In the weeks after I meet them, Luis has to be hospitalized - twice. Beth tells me he misses his friends who've moved out. She says she's thinking of quitting one of her jobs just to spend more time with him, but they also sound happier. Beth joins a support group. Luis is a lot calmer. The medication seems to be working. Luis gets a job. He hopes to save some money and apply to colleges very soon. Things are still uncertain, but Beth says she sees a light. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.