Part II: Dr. B. Hibbs “The Stressed Years of Their Lives” on how to support college students

College counseling centers are experiencing a dramatic rise in student demand for mental health services. Parents, counseling centers, and community providers are looking for ways to support college students. This is Part II of our interview with co-author, Dr. B. Janet Hibbs, on her book “The Stressed Years of Their Lives” where she dives into why students today are more stressed, how we can support them, and lessons learned when her son took a mental health leave of absence during college and worked with co-author and psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Rostain.

The Shrink Space: As a parent you openly shared your feelings of anxiety, helplessness and self-reproach, when you watched your son’s crisis unfold. Can you share more about the specific challenges you faced when supporting Jensen during this difficult time? And any advice on how parents and counseling centers can support college students today?

Hibbs: Being in the field, I felt enormously responsible for finding my son the best treatment I could. Even as a therapist it was difficult to find strong treatment. A number of the initial treatments didn’t work and I felt there was no progress.

The chronicity and ambiguity of the situation can be very stressful for a parent, because you may not know immediately if the mental health treatment is helpful. In research because of some of the parallels in the chronicity and ambiguity of the situation, the most that we know about the stress on parents is from what we know about parents whose children have cancer.  I wrote this chapter because I really wanted my parent readers to understand that they need support too. Often the focus is so heavily on the child who is struggling that the adults may forget that we could go down for the count here.  

A personal challenge to many parents, and I experienced this as well, is who can I share this to and to what extent? While my loved ones cared deeply, you can get unsolicited advice that may not be welcomed. It may help to guide your friends and family members and tell them what you are looking for, that you just need someone to listen and you’re not looking for advice.

The other part is the marital dynamic which for me was the classic gender-based split, something that I frequently see in my practice. And while true for me, but not always, moms can be the tough love parents and the other parent may be concerned that it may back-fire and want to use a gentler approach.

Fortunately for me in addition to being a Psychologist, as a Marriage and Family therapist I knew that this was happening which was very helpful. This is what prompted me to include a chapter on parenting in the latter half of the book. Because couples may not understand why they are in conflict or recognize how stressful supporting a child with a behavioral health problem can be. 

The Shrink Space: After Jensen took a leave of absence, you and your partner were not on the same page on how to parent him.  For the many parents in similar positions do you have any advice on resolving differences in parenting styles?

Hibbs: I had the enormous advantage of having 30+ years of clinical experience in the field, so my husband deferred to me very quickly. I appreciate most parents don’t have this advantage and may find themselves in a deadlock. In the book we included George Brown’s research on expressed emotion. His recommendations for how parents should communicate to one another may be easier said than done, but it is very important to keep this type of communication as the goal. The tone between parents should follow a positive, warm, non-reactive, validating of the other parent’s perspective, and not overly accommodating of the child.

As parents we need perspective taking, to acknowledge the validity and merits of our co-parent’s perspective and decisions. That we can gain strengths from each parent’s perspectives and at times, in the right dose, taking on the other parent’s position may be the right thing to do to best support your child. But of course, this is always a judgment call.

The Shrink Space: In the book you state that universities are taking a number of actions to improve access and education to mental health treatment. Are there additional recommendations or suggestions you’d make to university staff reading this on how to meet the increasing mental health demands and best support college students today?

Hibbs: Dr. Rostain is the true expert on this because of all his years on the task force at universities. But universities are casting a broader and broader safety net. They are increasingly treating parents as partners as they recognize that parents know their children very well. Of course, parents will have to sign a HIPAA and FERPA waiver. But colleges are increasingly wanting parents to be involved, not in a hovering way, but rather to communicate with each other about the resources and assistance the student may benefit from.

Increasingly the idea of in loco parentis (parents being less involved) arrived in the 60’s/70’s and is no longer working. Instead schools are recognizing that we need parents included to best support the student on campus. I would also encourage parents when they are interviewing colleges to ask what types of things they do to support parent involvement.

The Shrink Space: It is wonderful to hear that Jensen is doing very well. If he was with us today what would he say has been most helpful during his treatment?

Hibbs: He recently did a video for another talk we gave and he turned to the audience and said “I want to tell your kids and your friends to take your medicine!” We were very fortunate that he always took his medicine, even if it didn’t always work, until something did finally work. We were strong adherents that medicine helps and had some family members where medicine helped. He would also say if you have side effects of your medicine, tell your doctor about them, but don’t just stop taking your medicine. While, I and Dr. Rostain would give him a lot more credit than that, that is what he would say.

Thank you to Dr. Janet Hibbs for sharing about her personal experiences as a clinician and mom supporting her child with mental health struggles. To learn more about the rising student mental health needs on campus listen to Drs. Hibbs & Rostain on their NPR Fresh Air interview.

Dr. Hibbs is a psychologist and family therapist in private practice for over 25 years. Co-author, Dr. Rostain is a professor who practices at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chaired the University of Pennsylvania’s task force on student psychological health and well-being.

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