The campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. In one of the boldest state-led efforts to expand access to higher education, New Mexico is unveiling a plan on Wednesday to make tuition at its public colleges and universities free for all state residents, regardless of family income.
Photo: Cengiz Yar/The New York Times
Photo: Cengiz Yar/The New York Times

Campus nurses speak: How college students are handling their health

When it's your kid's turn to go to college, you're a nurse second and a parent first. All your professional knowledge about sleep deprivation, binge drinking and the "Freshman 15" can fly right out the window. And even if you earned a bachelor's degree or Master of Nursing, your college experience may have been far tamer – or much wilder – than the experience your child may have.

While you're forgetting the health basics and dwelling on that eerie empty nest feeling and how to pay for books, though, other nurses have your back. (Don't they always?) Campus nurses who staff student health centers provide students with basic and emergency health care, along with nutrition, fitness, sexuality, and substance use disorder education.

» RELATED: Why is student mental health at Georgia Tech and other schools worsening?

While HIPPA and most state laws prevent them from telling parents about individual student's struggles, campus nurses are a rich source of general information about what's going on with college student health – and how parents can help their kids, at least a little.

Family Circle is a case in point: It polled seven campus nurses to give parents an insider scoop on student health issues and timely preventive measures. That input and some other campus nurse observations and advice are helpful to nurses everywhere, whether they're dropping a child off at college or need a refresher to cope with their own young adult patient population.

Here's what campus nurses want you to know about college student health:

College kids don't get enough sleep. If your kid is still a teenager, part of the no-sleep equation is biological. But other bad sleeping habits among the college-age crowd can wreak havoc.

"Freshmen, especially, have much more difficulty with sleeping issues," Carol Kozel, RN, director of nursing services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told Family Circle. "They're suddenly living in a large residence hall for the first time, and people coming and going all day and night can be hard to get used to."

According to a 2014 study from Matthias Zunhammer from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Regensburg, students who perceive lots of stress around exams are particularly likely to sleep poorly. This effect was further exaggerated by increased nicotine, and smoking extra cigarettes is quite common on campus during exam time.

What you can do: "Gifts of noise-canceling headphones, earplugs and eyeshades might rate a shrug at first, but your freshman will be glad to have them once the semester starts," Family Circle advised, along with warning your kids off Red Bull and sugar to compensate for lack of sleep.

And there's one area where mom and dad can really assist their sleep-deprived kids. Recommend naps, especially when they're home on breaks. Just make sure these are the restorative naps that science says are invigorating, not the napping marathons that could indicate depression.

» RELATED: Some students quit mental health meds in college. Why that’s dangerous

College students won't usually seek care when they get sick. Between the competition, classwork, and partying, treating even serious ailments is way down on the priority list for most college students. "It's not unusual for our students to suffer with symptoms for days, weeks or even months before they finally come in to see us," Caroline Howard, RN, of the student health center at Howard University in Washington, D.C. told Family Circle. The situation gets worse because students will also attend class when they have flu symptoms or are vomiting.

How you can help: Get your child to learn the college's sick leave policy. This reassurance that no one expects them to be in class when they're running a contagious fever may eliminate literally months of illness for your kid.

Students can work with student health nurses to get help with medical accommodations. At Reinhardt University in Georgia's Cherokee County, for example, the campus nurse assists students with forming an asthma, allergy, seizure, or food allergy action plan. The dining services food accommodation plan (think kosher, vegan, gluten-free) also stems from the student health center.

How you can help: Steer your child to available resources on campus; the nurse's office is a good place to start.

» RELATED: Increasing academic and college pressures engulf teens

They're having sex, and they're super-susceptible to sexually transmitted infections. "Chlamydia is really common," Angela Ramirez-Wood, RN, a nurse at the University of Washington's Hall Health Center in Seattle told Family Circle. "I've seen maybe five cases just in the past two or three weeks." Other campus nurses report an increase in syphilis and gonorrhea, too.

The good news: college kids are getting tested for STIs, especially at the start or end of a relationship. The bad news: they're still pretty lax about protected sex.

What you can do: Reinforce every safe-sex lecture you've delivered over the years. It's a new situation, so they'll need to hear the message again. And let your child know to check out the student health service's free and low-cost protection and birth control options (emphasize that in the case of intrauterine devices and the Pill, these are two different things). Some schools even offer a mail-delivery service for condoms if students aren't willing to come into the center.

College students may need to respond to fellow students in crisis. Along with coping with their own adjustment to the stressors and freedoms of school, students need to know what to do when faced with a peer who's in trouble.

How you can help: Even though you won't be on hand if a crisis unfolds, you should still learn the risk factors ahead of time so you're not caught off guard if your college student offhandedly reports (or self-reports) some odd behavior. Share the list of behaviors that indicate risk with your student, repeatedly. That way, your kid can improve the odds of recognizing risky behavior, possibly in time to help a peer cope before things get out of hand. Moreno Valley College Student Health and Psychological Services shared a matter-of-fact chart of major risk factors that can help students, parents, and faculty alike be aware of potential symptoms and the best course of action. It's a good idea to follow up with your own college's student health services center or campus nurse to see if your school has a specific policy. But these general guidelines are a good start.

» RELATED: 7 ways parenting has changed in the past 25 years

Academic indicators

  • The student's work declines in quality.
  • The student starts being absent from class, study groups and other academic activities.
  • The student's work includes "bizarre content in writings or presentations."
  • Conversations that used to be about academics (like talks with advisors or classmates) have become increasingly personal.

Physical indicators

  • The student looks different physically, perhaps letting grooming and hygiene go.
  • The student loses or gains a marked amount of weight (remember, this isn't about judging appearance, it's about noting possible mental health risks).
  • The student is always tired or has fractured sleep patterns.
  • The student is often intoxicated, hungover or smells of alcohol.
  • The person seems disoriented, with or without symptoms of intoxication or drug use.
  • Emotion changes rapidly, especially when a consistently morose student suddenly gets very happy.
  • A person suddenly starts giving away all their possessions.

» RELATED: Bad day or childhood depression? Signs every parent should know

Psychological indicators

The student is excessively tearful, irritable or listless. Be especially aware of panic reactions beyond the occasional fears of doing poorly on a test or sleeping through a first class.

The student begins to verbally abuse others with demeaning remarks or by intimidating. Be especially alert if this behavior is inflicted on a teen who is dating, or used to see, this person.

Safety risk indicators

  • An unprovoked outburst of anger or hostility.
  • The student makes a subtle or direct threat of harming himself or another person.
  • The student writes papers or completes other academic assignments with a dominant theme of rage, hopelessness, despair, violence or ideas of suicide. All of these are the typical "cries for help" that should be heeded by fellow students.
  • The student makes threats of violence in emails, texts or by phone. This applies even if the person in question has just suffered a breakup and is communicating with his or her ex.

» RELATED: People with depression are more likely to use certain words — here’s how they express themselves

While all college students should know what to do if their safety is threatened, up to and including calling 911, it's equally important to know what to do if a peer is displaying suicidal tendencies. While the campus nurse is a good first line of defense, if she's not available or your child's college campus doesn't provide a 24/7 nurse advice line, make sure you keep this information handy and give it to your child to carry:

If you, your college student child, or an acquaintance are experiencing suicidal tendencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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