By Mary Helen Berg
Many college-bound students give more thought to their dorm room décor than campus healthcare. Getting sick in college is the least of their concerns. But when Anna R. considered attending Tulane University nearly 2,000 miles from her Los Angeles home, it was the school’s excellent hospital that sealed the deal. There, Anna knew she could receive the critical drug infusions she needed every four to six months to treat her rare autoimmune disease, juvenile dermatomyositis.
Although Anna was a strong advocate for her own health, it wasn’t easy to let her go to school across the country, says her mom, Carol S.
“A lot of my friends thought I was insane to let Anna go,” she recalls. “But she really wanted to live a normal life. I think depending on what kind of illness or medical needs your student has, it’s really important for them to take that on and for you to think of it not as a scary thing, but as empowering for them.”
Getting Sick in College
Even if your student doesn’t face serious health challenges, getting sick in college her freshman year may be the first time she takes charge of her own medical needs. Since you won’t be there to administer doses of allergy medicine and ibuprofen, she’ll need to know how to address basic concerns and where to turn if she gets sick.
“Don’t think that you are going to drive two, or four, or six hours to get your student and whisk them home if they are sick,” says Sarah Waters, director of residence life for 15,000 undergraduates at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “We have great medical professionals and counselors right at the university.”
Instead of showing up on campus with chicken soup after illness strikes, parents need to be proactive, says Waters.
Discuss health history and potential challenges long before your student leaves home. Help them understand basics like how to schedule a doctor’s appointment and refill a prescription. Make sure your student understands the many services available at the campus student health office, including flu shots, contraceptives, and lab tests.
Severe allergies, asthma, and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD are among the most common health problems for college freshmen, Waters notes.
If your student suffers from chronic medical issues like these, research resources together before school starts. If you anticipate that your student will need specialists off campus, use freshman orientation to meet with potential doctors and plot transportation to appointments, she adds.
Sometimes students find that a novel environment, new friends, inconsistent meals and sleep, and access to alcohol can interfere with medications and health routines, notes Dr. Kitty O’Hare, director of transition medicine for primary care at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Students who took medication in high school for conditions like ADHD or anxiety may also view freshman year as an opportunity to reduce or stop their prescriptions, a decision that can seriously impact their health or academic success.
“I encourage kids not to stop cold turkey, but to go see whoever is prescribing their medicine and talk about it before they stop, and before they go to school, so they can discuss the pros and cons,” O’Hare advises.
Is your student ready to manage her medical needs? Ask yourself these four questions:
1. Has she ever spoken to a doctor without you?
Many medical professionals encourage patients to advocate for themselves as early as 12 to 14 years old, says O’Hare.
2. Does she need special accommodations on campus?
Contact the school disabilities services office at least six months before school starts to make housing or academic accommodation requests, advises Waters.
3. Does she understand when an ailment is an emergency?
Student health services can often treat minor injuries and illnesses like the flu, colds, and fevers. However, a student with severe allergies who experiences trouble breathing should know to call 911, Waters counsels.
4. Are her health records complete?
File detailed health records with her college. Document an emergency healthcare plan, and store it on her cellphone. The Apple iPhone, for example, has a health app that allows users to list information on medical conditions, allergies, and medications.
Mary Helen Berg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Scary Mommy, and many other publications.