Child Psychiatry Consult

Failure to launch can happen to college students


 

March often is the time of year when college freshmen truly begin to feel comfortable in their new settings. Many students report feeling excited to get back to campus after the long winter break, and once into their second semester, they feel more comfortable with the independence from family and high school supports. It also is a time for some college freshmen to return home after failing to manage this major transition.

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Of the latter group, many will have had difficult months of depression, anxiety, or substance use, and most will be suffering from a deep sense of shame after failing to navigate this long-anticipated transition. There are several reasons why some older adolescents fail to manage the transition to college, some more serious than others. Asking detailed questions about their academic challenges, social lives, self-care, and sleep while they were on campus will help you make thoughtful recommendations to your patients and their parents about how they might best get back on track.

Some students will report a great social experience, but academic struggles. They will report some normal ups and downs emotionally, but most of their distress will have been focused on their academic performance. Many 18-year-olds have not had to organize their time and effort around homework without the attention and support of parents and teachers. College often has much bigger classes, with less personal attention. There is a lot of assigned reading, but no regular incremental homework, only a major midterm and final exam, or a substantial paper. For a student who gets anxious about performance, or one with organizational challenges, this can lead to procrastination and poor performance.

Find out details about how they did academically. Did they fail one class or many classes? Did they receive some incompletes in their first semester and then struggle to catch up with them while keeping up with their second semester work? Did they have tutoring or support? Were they unrealistic about their course load? Or did they have their first serious relationship and not spend enough time on homework? Did they spend too much time partying with their new friends and not enough time sleeping and getting their homework done?

It is important to dig deeper if patients report regular or binge drug and alcohol use that interfered with their academic performance, as they may need more substantial substance use disorder treatment. Most students, though, will not have a substance use disorder. Instead, their academic failure could represent something as simple as the need for more academic support and time management support. Many schools have such programs to help students learn how to better manage their time and effort as they take fuller responsibility than they had for it in high school.

For other students, you will learn that their emotional distress preceded their academic troubles. The stress of the transition to college may be enough to trigger an episode of depression or to exacerbate a mood or anxiety disorder that was subclinical or in remission before school started. These students usually will report that sadness, intense anxiety, or loss of interest came early in their semester; perhaps they were even doing well academically when these problems started.

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