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For Students With Mental Health Issues, Transition To College Is Complicated

LA Johnson/NPR

All over the country, high school graduates are making the jump to college. They're getting to know their roommates, buying supplies, and saying tearful goodbyes to parents.

It's a stressful time for any family, but consider this: For the growing number of students dealing with mental health issues, it can be a terrifying transition. Sometimes, it raises the question: Is college really an option?

That's the case with Luis, a bright young man from Virginia with a brain injury and bipolar disorder.

I first met Luis in late June — on the day of his high school graduation. (To protect his privacy, we're using only his middle name.)

His forehead was moist with sweat from his blue cap and gown and the muggy southern heat — but mostly, because he was nervous.

"School has been the thing that is constant, throughout my entire life, that I remember," he said.

For a lot of kids, this is a bittersweet occasion: Saying goodbye to friends and looking towards college. For Luis, leaving high school means jumping into the unknown.

The next day, we talked again in his dark living room, as he strummed on his guitar. Excitement had given way to concern, he said: "Everything is different."

Luis seems like the type of kid who should be headed straight to college. "I enjoy economics a lot," he says. "I play the bass guitar, the piano, the trombone, the guitar a little bit."

He tells me he's been grappling with depression his whole life. But it was a head injury during his sophomore year that changed everything. Suddenly, college became a big question mark. Getting through high school became the one goal.

Doctors say it's going to take his brain years to heal. When I spoke to Luis, he was on Olanzapine and Hydroxyzine, as needed, for anxiety.

"Before the brain injury I never took notes. I sat in class, I listened to what the teacher said, and I absorbed it beautifully," Luis says. "And I always got amazing grades on tests."

Now, it doesn't work like that. And academics aren't the only problem. "One of the things that is definitely challenging is my rage," he says. "I have a much shorter fuse."

Beth, Luis' mom, told me when the rage hits, it's more than just a "short fuse."

"He wants to kill himself," she says, sobbing.

In the past year, she's had Luis hospitalized several times.

"I get scared," she says. "Because I don't know if this is the time he'll go through with it."

Speaking to mother and son separately, it's disconcerting, the gap between their perceptions of how serious the situation is. Beth is terrified. She's already working two jobs to pay Luis' health bills. Each hospitalization costs between $1,500 and $2,000.

"There's a moment, for a second, that I think, 'I'm not a very good mom,' " she says. "Because I think, 'Wait, how is this going to affect what I'm trying to give him?' I just can't seem to get out of the hole."

Luis does see the way to get out: college. "I look at my mental illness as something that spiritually I have to be able to handle on my own," he says. "I'm definitely going to go to college, regardless of whether the system is in place."

Seeking Support On Campus

So, what systems are in place? I called up Vanessa Caldwell Jenkins. She's the director of the counseling center at Norfolk State University, in Norfolk, Va. I asked her what kind of options a student like Luis has if he should go to college.

"All college campuses have disability services," she told me. "So Luis needs to go into disability services, because that gives him his reasonable accommodations they need to give him by federal law. He has a right to those: If he needs more time for testing ... if he needs to be in a different room because he gets anxiety ... whatever that is."

Caldwell Jenkins suggested other key steps. Mainly, Luis and his mom need to research what counseling services schools offer, and meet in person with the counselors. Make Luis a familiar face, she says, adding that a lot of schools have support groups. And she also encourages students to sign a disclosure allowing parents access to information about their kid's mental health.

Parents, she adds, also need to seek support groups for themselves. And they need to learn to let go a little bit. "A part of growing up, and also expanding as a young person," Caldwell Jenkins explains, "is that you slowly, gradually get them out there."

Beth says she gets that. "He wants his independence, he wants to go out and do this, which is the right thing at his age to do," she says.

But she still worries about the little things: the ups and downs of college life, the stress, the experimenting. Thing that barely make a blip in most college students lives could unravel Luis'. "One little mistake, as we've learned," she says, "can cost so much."

In the weeks after I meet them, Luis has to be hospitalized, twice. Beth tells me he misses his friends who've moved out. She says she's thinking of quitting one of her jobs, just to spend more time with him.

But they also sound happier. Beth joins a support group. Luis is a lot calmer. The medication seems to be working. Luis got a job — he hopes to save some money, and apply to colleges very soon.

Things are still uncertain, but, Beth says, she sees a light.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.