Working with Parents During a Mental Health Crisis

Five years ago, the University of Houston joined hundreds of colleges and universities across the country who began to hire full-time professionals with mental health backgrounds in their Deans of Students offices to support students struggling with their mental health.

I have had the privilege to be the first person to serve in this role at UH. My experience supporting student through mental health crisis spans 15 years with students from 6th grade to graduate school. I have had the opportunity to help students navigate their transitions back to campus, guide their next steps and connect them to a continuum of care.

Hope PachecoAlthough my primary work is with students, I consider my work with parents during a mental health crisis vitally important to helping students make a smooth transition back to campus and begin to develop a plan of action for the rest of their semester. Parent communication during a student mental health crisis in middle and high school is mandatory; however, communication with parents at the college level is limited and can be challenging because of FERPA. I have learned to navigate through the communication challenge and find ways to be supportive and responsive even if I am unable to share specific student information.

My first contact with a parent might be after they have received a call from our university police, who on our campus have the responsibility to contact students listed emergency contact, which is most often their parent/guardian to inform them that their student is being transported to a hospital for mental health evaluation.

This call could come any time, any day of the week. For some parents, this is not an unexpected call. They may have been supporting their student through managing their mental health diagnosis since middle or high school. For others, this call is the first time they are hearing their student is struggling with their mental health. Either call can be devastating for parents and trying to get to the hospital if they live local or get in touch with their student by phone or email if they are not local can also pose many challenges, especially here in Houston, Texas, home to the largest medical center in the world.

By the time I hear from parents, they may have hit a wall trying to get any information from the hospital or it may be at the recommendation from the hospital or their student to call someone at the university to let their professors know they won’t be attending classes because of their hospitalization. As university staff, unless we have a FERPA form signed, we are also bound by privacy laws not to discuss information with parents; however, in those moments when I am fortunate enough to be able to speak to a parent while they are trying to navigate the mental health system with their student, I do my very best to be compassionate, patient and responsive.

I focus on what I am able to share with parents and not what I am unable. I focus on trying to anticipate questions parents may have and give them the space to ask questions that I may have to search for answers for them. I share the process of emergency response, what we offer and how we communication with students who are transitioning back to campus after hospitalization. I let parents know that if the student wants the parent to join us in our post hospital meeting, we are absolutely open to having parents join the meeting with the students permission. I have had to navigate the parent/student dynamics for many years and whether it is a teenager or an adult student, those dynamics don’t change that much.

I put myself in our parents shoes, and think about how I would want someone to talk to me about my child who is an adult, but will always be my child. These are very  nuanced  conversations given that not every parent and student has a healthy supportive relationship. There are some students who do not have a parent that calls, but it may be an aunt or grandmother or older sister and I follow the same approach and affirm the difficulty of the situation, offer compassion and patience if they are struggling with how to respond to help their student.

If students are transported for a mental health evaluation from our campus, they are required to meet with me for a post hospital meeting where we review their discharge paperwork and discuss their intention on following through on their treatment plan, communicating with professors, friends, family and/or roommates, their plans for continuing with their semester, their interest and need for support from on and off campus resources. With a students permission, the parent can attend the meeting and I ask about their communication plan moving forward. Many parents set up an expectation for the student to call or text at a certain time so the parent can know if they are ok. If there is not a plan in place, I recommend they discuss setting up a plan, especially for our students who have had multiple hospitalizations. I also provide information about NAMI-National Alliance on Mental Illness for parents/guardians and siblings who have unique needs and challenges as caregivers to students who have a mental health diagnosis.

At the end of the day, most of the parents I have worked with appreciate the acknowledgement that they are having to walk a fine line of letting their student experience independence and learn from their mistakes while also balancing the need to stay informed and involved while their child, our student is learning to manage their mental health.

As an administrator, I have to remind myself not to rush to judgement about college parents being helicopter parents or over parenting when we don’t always know the full story or how much worry and concern our parents have to let their students who may be struggling with their mental health out of reach. I remind myself to be present and authentic with parents, even if I can't share with them the details of their students schedule or GPA. I know I can share our processes, our approach, our commitment to their child. Working with parents keep me focused and humble.

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