Sending Your Child to College? Advice from Dr. Drew

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Courtesy of HLN

Dr. Drew Pinsky

With thousands of kids starting to pack for their first year at college or preparing to return after the summer break, now is a good time to talk to them about some important health and wellness issues on campus. To help parents figure out what to look for and worry about, School of Thought asked Dr. Drew Pinsky, the best-selling author and TV and radio host who has been dubbed the "surgeon general of youth culture" by the New York Times. On his college radar: prescription drugs, hook-up culture and processed food. As a practicing physician and the father of triplets, Dr. Drew isn't fielding abstract questions — his own kids are starting university this fall.

College isn't always a bastion of healthy living. Late nights, pizza and stress can't be good for you. What should parents talk to their children about when they leave for college?

Start with the easy stuff — safety. In the [college] age group, accidents are a major cause of morbidity, and alcohol is often involved in some fashion. Remind students that they're on their own and are not invincible.

I've been to hundreds of colleges all over the country, and almost every one has an outstanding health and mental-health service. Tell them to take advantage of the screenings, services and mental-health services that are there if they need them.

There is a reason kids gain weight when they go to college. They're not accustomed to having food choices and making choices — their parents do it for them. Tell them that if it comes out of the ground, it's healthier than if it comes out of a package, and that they should pay attention to what they're eating — don't go for the pizza or pasta every time.

What about drugs and alcohol?

Point out to them that a single binge — that's four shots of liquor — can affect them for up to a week, and studies show it can affect grade-point averages. Ask academically focused students if they want to handicap themselves competitively with alcohol. Ask them how they can navigate the environment at college so they don't have to binge. I'm convinced that binge alcohol use is the result of the unnatural pressures on these kids socially.

Drugs are a tougher conversation. Try to stay factual. They're heading into adulthood and have to make choices about these things. If you have a family history of addiction, you must have the conversation about risk — even occasional use can trigger the addictive process.

Have a conversation about prescription drugs and the use of stimulants for studying. They can induce mania, depression and addiction. There is a real casual attitude among students about medicines that are approved by doctors. They perceive the benefit but don't perceive the potential harm.

Remind them that if they're trying to feel better, and the drug use is an attempt to feel better, that there are better ways. Medication, therapy, walks, music, for instance — that will be more effective than the euphoria that leaves you more depressed on the other side.

And you can't bulls--- them. Don't ever bulls--- them. The most dangerous comment I hear a parent say is: "Not my kid." Instead, you should say, "Could be my kid." Good kids get in lots of trouble too.

Sex and sexually transmitted diseases? Never an easy topic. How should parents approach this?

First, you may have to educate yourself as a parent. There are newer vaccinations to be aware of — for example, HPV. You need to talk about safe sex and contraceptives, and if you're not comfortable, then get them to student health. But they need to manage their sexuality.

There is a dicey piece to this, though. Hooking up is institutionalized. But when you study hooking up, you find a lot of unhappiness in college women. Why are they always intoxicated when they're doing it? When I give talks on campuses and I ask the men about this, they say it's because "I could get rejected." "I drink so I can pull it off." "I'm medicating my anxiety."

When you ask the ladies, it's always absolute silence. Because they just heard something different [from the boys] than what they expected. I could blame the alcohol, but some courageous girl will say, "I drink to make sure I don't have any feeling." And again the room goes silent. Because that's different than what the guys say.

I tell women we could educate these young men about what would make you happier. Some always say, "I wish someone would just talk with me." So I ask what would happen if a guy called you up and you went out and had a meal? They say that would be incredible. I say, "That's a date."

So tell the guys to learn to ask them out on dates — they'll be way ahead of the game. And empower women to say, "I'd rather do that than do the drunk thing in the frat house." Because right now they're missing the chance to learn how to form relationships.

Mental illness often manifests itself when students are away at college. What should parents look for and what should they tell their children?

If you have a family history of bipolar [disorder] or schizophrenia, this is the age that it can come on, and kids should know what the symptoms are. If you can't sleep or have bursts of energy, pay attention. The earlier these things are treated, the better.

Anxiety disorders are another issue. There is a lot of anxiety in college. That's where a lot of binge alcohol comes in. You're away, navigating new situations. But if you start having panic attacks, you should know it's not medical and go to health services at your college.

Depression is pretty ubiquitous. Tell them to use others, to talk about it with them. And again, use health services. Get the services you need. And if you're thinking about harming yourself, speak up. Colleges historically had a more difficult time with this, so many students didn't make it past their freshman year. Now schools are very aware of this in the first year and are helping students get past it into the upper classes.

If it happens, don't allow this to let you retreat. The vast majority of these cases get better.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.