By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA
Almost 75% of college students reported moderate to severe psychological distress during the 2020-2021 school year (National College Health Assessment, American College Health Association, 2021). College students across the country are continuing to struggle with depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts this school year. My appointment calendar is often made up of meetings with college students or parents of college students beginning the process of taking a leave of absence and wondering what to do next. Here are some tips that I shared with many of these students and families.
Many students need to participate in skill-based therapies (cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention, acceptance and commitment therapy, etc.) in order to build up coping skills that may not have been developed in high school. Depending on the severity of current mental health issues, a student may need to participate in an intensive inpatient or outpatient treatment. Ultimately, many students need to find a supportive outpatient therapist—ideally someone who will be able to continue treating the student if they plan to make a future college attempt.
Psychopharmacological intervention (i.e., medication) can be important to consider. Sometimes students have not been taking medications as prescribed or they are taking medications exactly as prescribed but not gaining the intended benefits. Consulting with a prescriber can be an important treatment step for determining whether medication, or medication changes, are necessary.
For any student, having a regular routine for exercise, sleep, and healthy diet has an impact. However, this is even more critical for students who are vulnerable to anxiety and/or depression. Exercise does not have to start big. Walking (with or without the dog), hiking, or just moving along to a YouTube fitness video for 10 minutes a day will make a difference. It’s critical to schedule the exercise in and often easiest if this is part of a morning or evening routine. For some students, working with a personal trainer or attending scheduled classes helps with accountability. Using a wearable exercise tracker like a Fitbit, Garmin Watch, or Apple Watch can also help with motivation and consistency.
Get a Job
Over the past 25 years, we have seen a notable decrease in the number of high school students who have participated in paid employment. Many students went off to college without taking time to connect college participation with future career interests. Using time off from school to explore work preferences and build transferrable skills (and a resume) can help students experience efficacy and improve mood. As a college student, no one is particularly excited when you show up to class, and the professor certainly doesn’t depend on you in order to get their job done. However, as an employee, students can experience tangible success through accomplishing work activities, receiving gratitude from coworkers and supervisors, and earning money. Work can also provide an important social experience. This is also an historic time to be looking for a first or early career position in the American workforce. Entry-level workers can make good wages. and there are plenty of part-time job openings across industries. Moreover, it’s difficult to get fired right now because good help is truly hard to find.
For students who are not ready to commit to paid work, and need time to recover and build energies up, volunteer jobs are also good opportunities. Some students will do better with brief drop-in volunteer activities while others my want to schedule more routine work hours.
Consider Taking Classes
When students take a leave of absence from college, the assumption is that the student will want to return to a college experience. But many students take a leave of absence and determine that they do not want to go back to college or that they do not want to go back to the same college. If a student wants to keep up academic skills, they can audit or take one or more college courses during the spring semester (depending on their college’s policies and whether they are planning to return). Community colleges, state colleges, and part-time or online college programs (like Harvard Extension School) are good options to explore for classes of interest as a non-degree seeking student. Starting back with a class that is high interest or a low degree of difficulty can be helpful for students who need to rebuild confidence. Additionally, when students are unsure if they are going to return to college or uncertain of a potential future major, it can be good to try classes that are likely to transfer and generally meet basic liberal arts requirements.
Get a Coach
Some students with mental health issues have other underlying challenges that contributed to their struggles in college. There could be a learning disability that wasn’t appropriately being addressed with accommodations, executive function challenges that impacted keeping up with pace, or volume of academics, social challenges that were exacerbated by the highly social dorm environment, or other issues. It is important to consider whether there are skill deficits that may have contributed to a student experiencing anxiety or depression. Some students will benefit from life skills, executive function, or social coaching in order to build up areas that are weaker before heading back to college (or may want to continue with that coaching when they head back).
Other students may want to take time to work with a career or transition coach to do some self-exploration. Taking a step back to participate in self-assessment related to one’s preferences and interests and to determine how those align with potential college major and future career interests can be helpful. I have worked with several students on leave to go through a career planning process. For some, they discover that they chose exactly the right college and major, and that can increase motivation when they get back to school, with proper supports in place. For others, this process sets a student on a completely new path.
Let us know, in our online Intake Form, if your student needs support during their time off from school and/or coaching to assist during their time off or when they return to college.
About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.