CSP Team Note: This article was originally featured on the Atrium Health blog. For more health and wellness content, visit AtriumHealth.org/DailyDose.
College is a time where young adults are busy choosing classes, packing suitcases and preparing for more freedom than ever before. So who has time for a health check-up?
They grow up so fast! As the parent of a high school graduate, you want to ensure your child is as healthy as possible before leaving for college. Most schools require a medical history and an immunization record. So before sending your college-bound student off this fall, make sure they are up-to-date on their immunizations and vaccines and be sure to schedule a physical exam.
“It is important for students to get a physical exam before heading off to college because this is a unique opportunity for assessing the risk of health conditions and discussing ways to remain healthy in the future,” said Giovanni Llibre, MD, with Atrium Health Mecklenburg Medical Group – Pineville.
“It marks a time during which the primary responsibility for health care shifts from the parent to the student, and both should be involved in the transition.”
A physical exam ensures that the safety and wellness of the school population is not compromised by illness or infectious disease. In scheduling a visit, students are also able to ensure that their immunizations – including Hepatitis B, Varicella and Meningococcal vaccine – are up-to-date.
What about my child’s medications? Make sure to see their physician and obtain refills as necessary.
New students face a host of challenges as they transition to college when it comes to maintaining physical heath. Here are a few tips to help college students stay healthy, or manage an existing health condition, while away from home.
(1) Diet and Exercise
Remind your child that following just a few basic guidelines will go a long way toward keeping their energy up and managing their physical health. Eat breakfast. Keep healthy snacks close by. Put down the chips and don’t engage in “stress eating” while preparing for exams. Drink lots of water and don’t skip meals. Exercise every day, even if it’s just a walk around campus.
Getting enough sleep is key to maintaining health, but a full night’s rest is often difficult to come by in college, between preparing for exams, working a part-time job or managing social obligations. A good guideline for your child: Strive to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, or take a nap when possible if they can’t get a good night’s rest.
(3) Practice safe social behaviors
As students get older during their college years and they reach the legal drinking age, many of them may begin to drink alcoholic beverages and partake in more social behaviors. During this period of time, it becomes imperative to teach young adults to drink responsibly and to avoid drugs at all costs.
“College life brings much new independence to young adults and it is important that smart choices are made. It takes just a second to make a wrong decision that can have lifelong negative consequences,“ says Porter Peterson, MD, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Cabarrus Pediatrics.
(4) Know Nearby Care Options
Many schools have on-campus health centers that give your child easy access to free or low-cost medical care. Make sure your child knows where campus and other nearby health resources are – before they get sick or need more urgent care. Also make sure they have up-to-date copies of their insurance card.
(5) Existing Illnesses or Conditions
“For any child with a chronic medical condition, it is very important to start with your pediatrician or family doctor and talk with them about a transition of care plan,” says Dr. Peterson. “Your physician may know other physicians in the area where your child will be in college, or they typically have resources where they can find contacts. We encourage families to talk with their doctors well ahead oftime, so there’s no lapse in care.”
“Students with medical conditions should have their prescriptions filled for at least three months in order to avoid gaps during the transition to a new healthcare provider,” said Dr. Llibre.
Stresses in college come in many forms: managing schoolwork, dealing with social pressures and even battling homesickness. Students may focus on ways to avoid the ‘Freshman 15’ weight gain, but often give little attention to mental health. Here are a few ways to help them manage common mental health concerns in college, like depression, anxiety and social worries.
Pick the Right School for You
Mental wellness starts with choosing an academic situation that feels the most comfortable for your child. Do they want to stay close to home? Select a school in-state. Do they want a stronger sense of community? Select a smaller school that may feel less overwhelming. Living situations and school mental health resources should also be considered during the search process.
On-campus wellness resources aren’t just for physical health. If your child is seeing a counselor, therapist or psychiatrist before they go off to college, make sure you have connected them to a counselor on campus. Find out what to do if an emotional crisis comes up. Are there after-hours numbers to call for help? Talk to your child about handling feelings of isolation or homesickness – both very common for freshman and transfer students.
“Parents should foster independence in their children, but a child stills needs the parent, whether it’s for advice, a listening ear or support with something,” says Dr. Peterson. “I encourage parents to let their child approach them with updates and not go through a ‘checklist’ of questions as to how things are going or what things have been tough on them. That can be a set-up for problems.” Dr. Peterson suggests parents and children establish mutually agreeable guidelines when and how to check in, like via phone, text or email.
Watch for Signs
“Parents should always be aware of signals that maybe something isn’t quite right with their child,” says Dr. Peterson. “Something as simple as a change in mood or not returning calls or texts could signal that there is a problem. If this is happening, parents should talk to the child and possibly reach out to a resident advisor in the dorm or student health center where counselors are available.”