College Student Suicides

Posted March 30th, 2010 by collegemomindebt and filed in Depression, Parent to Parent
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My mother’s heart breaks when I read about the students who’ve taken their lives at Cornell University.   http://www.nydailynews.com/lifestyle/health/2010/03/19/2010-03-19_recent_wave_of_suicides_at_cornell_leaves_parents_worried_and_students_anxious_.html I can think of no greater loss to a family.  We all expect our children to outlive us and when that doesn’t happen and suicide appears to be the cause, so many questions and doubts arise. 

It is my hope that schools will add resources to help identify students who are contemplating suicide and actively help those students make other choices before it is too late.  It seems like some schools are doing this better than others.

As for my own college age children, I am praying that they will always know that they can contact me any time day or night and that they use the resources on campus and in the community and those that I’ve worked hard to extend to them (like the student assistance plan) to help them make healthy choices.

Time to Breathe

Posted February 10th, 2010 by collegemomindebt and filed in Finances, Parent to Parent
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Yay!  It’s finally time to breathe.

  • Our 1099 tax form has been completed and filed and we’re getting a modest return. 
  • Daughter Number Two has sat at the computer and entered the remaining data to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) while I hunted down numbers for her from various tax forms. 
  • The FAFSA is done and has been submitted to the federal government and her transfer school of choice.  (I had to recover the personal identifier number (PIN) used for Daughter Number One, but this was an easier process than I had imagined.)
  • Daughter Number One has completed her bachelor and graduate degrees and is working in a job and living in a community she loves.
  • Daughter Number Two is completing Winter Quarter Mid-terms at community college and preparing for a vocal scholarship audition that will occur in two weeks.
  • With the help of a strong antibiotic, Daughter Number Three is recovering from three ear/nose/throat infections and got well enough in time to make a mandatory 6th Grade Band Concert last Thursday.

Now I can relax and focus on other things that need attention like my job, volunteer work, laundry and housework.

Given that my life is composed of many different relationships, responsibilities and interests, there are times when I need extra support.  Even with twenty years of being an elementary school parent, I still need the help of a consulting nurse to know when to bring my 6th Grade daughter in to the doctor for tests.  And after 35 years in the work force, I still need help from a tax accountant to put together my W2’s and 1099.  And even after having gotten one child through the full education process, my family and I still need occasional advice from financial counselors, relationship counselors and legal counselors.  For this reason, I am happy to have support like that offered by the Student Assistance Program just a phone call away.  In these difficult economic times, it is important to gather multiple resources around me so that “College Mom in Debt” doesn’t become overwhelmed and unfit to carry on in all the roles that my family and community needs me to fill.

Thankfully, even though the weather is chilly and I’m a bit weary, I am content and I have some fun things planned for my husband and I this Valentine’s Day Weekend.  I hope all college moms are faring at least as well as me this week.

The Season I Dread Most

Posted December 31st, 2009 by collegemomindebt and filed in Parent to Parent
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Lady filling out taxesAs a parent of a college aged daughter I dread January. ‘Tis the season of getting taxes done early so I can get the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completed. The FAFSA is used by the college to determine our estimated family contribution (EFC). The EFC is the amount we will be expected to pay out of pocket for school. The first time I had to complete this form (for daughter number one), I made a mistake and so the college had to help me get it corrected. Since that time I’ve used the form and tax forms from the prior year as a template for how to complete it for the next year. This means I have to get this year’s taxes done, pull out last year’s tax information and FAFSA and put on my reading glasses (yes, I’ve become visually challenged in recent years) and try to relearn the vocabulary of this form.

The first time I had to fill out the form there was no free assistance to help parents complete the form. Now the local school district offers free sessions with support for completing the form. I fully intend to utilize the free assistance. However, the assistance is only offered at our local high school from January 4-7. This means I have to get my taxes done by the 5th of January. And as you can guess, this means I’m pulling together paper work over the New Year’s holiday. What a way to spend my holiday and time off. Oh well.

One of these days my children all will be grown and out of college. When the first New Year’s Day after that time happens I will celebrate in an extra big way. Since child number three is now in 6th Grade, that is some time off, but believe me, I will celebrate when the day comes.

To all you other parents of college aged children, “Cheers and Happy New Year!”

Signs of Distress

Posted December 22nd, 2009 by collegemomindebt and filed in Depression, Parent to Parent, Student to Student

The story below is based on a true story but the names have been changed for confidentiality.

When Tawnya’s grandmother passed away after a long and painful illness it sent the whole family into a tailspin. Grandma had been the spiritual head of the family. She was the one that family members went to when they wanted advice or comfort. With Grandma gone the family stopped attending faith based meetings and stopped celebrating spiritual holidays. Family traditions were dropped. Tawnya’s mother became somewhat bitter. Her father became mildly depressed. And her sisters became somewhat withdrawn. But Tawnya was impacted most of all.

Unfocused student18 months after Grandma had passed away, Tawnya was in college and hours from home. Then Tawnya began to eat less. She found it hard to get out of bed in the morning. She lost her motivation for school. She took less care of her attire and grooming.

Amy was Tawnya’s friend. Amy listened to Tawnya day after day as she became more sad, more irritable and more unfocused in her school work and even in her conversations. Amy was interested in the medical field and so watched many documentaries and television dramas about medical topics. One day she watched a drama about a teen who was suffering from clinical depression. This prompted her to go online to look up “signs of depression”. She found a list like the one at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression and realized that Tawnya was exhibiting nearly every sign of depression. She talked with Tawnya about this and asked Tawnya to tell her parents and to ask for help, but Tawnya did not act on what Amy told her. The next week Tawnya began to talk about wanting to be dead and having specific ideas about how she might take her life. This prompted Amy to call Amy’s mom.

Amy’s mom had worked in the medical field for years and quickly said, “Amy this is too big an issue for you to try to solve on your own. You need to involve a responsible adult from the college that Tawnya trusts.”
Amy contacted a favorite professor that both Tawnya and Amy liked and trusted. The professor agreed that it sounded like Tawnya was in trouble and committed to call Tawnya into her office to talk with her immediately.

When Tawnya got the call, Amy was in the room. Tawnya’s first response was anger. She asked Amy, “How dare you share my personal problems with someone else. I told you those things in confidence.”
However, Tawnya went that day to meet with the professor. The professor heard Tawnya out and then, while Tawnya was there, she phoned Tawnya’s parents.

Within that week Tawnya was seen by a mental health professional, diagnosed with clinical depression and started on anti-depressants. She told Amy that she was sorry she acted mad and that she was actually glad that Amy had cared enough to involve someone who could help her get better. Within two weeks, Tawnya was feeling better and showing more interest in eating, getting proper rest and doing well in school. Tawnya and Amy retained their friendship and Tawnya got involved in the crisis help line at school. When she tells her story, she talks about how important it is to get professional help for a friend who is suffering from depression even if it could mean the loss of a friend. Confidentiality and friendship are less important than saving someone’s life.

A Shout Out to Hospitable Parents

Posted December 20th, 2009 by collegemomindebt and filed in Parent to Parent
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New Orleans houseWhen daughter number one was transitioning between college and graduate school she opted to go to New Orleans, a city where we didn’t know anyone. She insisted on going straight from college graduation to New Orleans. She was to have a job starting in six weeks and would be in school at Tulane University and living off school loans in two and a half months. But in the meantime, she had no money, no job and nowhere to live. A week before she was to fly to the new city, she asked one of her college professors to contact a church in the city to ask if a family from the church could provide temporary housing. A family responded to the request.

I am so thankful to this family. They provided her a room at no cost for six weeks. They fed her, befriended her, helped her get temporary work at the church as a secretary and helped her transition to her job and housing at a non-profit organization and helped her transition from college life to graduate school life.

This family started as strangers and became friends. Their generosity and kindliness has been an inspiration to our daughter and to our whole family. Now when we get calls to help a student who is coming to our town, we respond positively because we remember that this student is someone else’s child who needs a caring family to help him/her make a transition.

Thank you to those who take in strangers and care for them as though they were family!

Comforting Across the Miles

Posted December 9th, 2009 by collegemomindebt and filed in Parent to Parent
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Student sitting on concrete with phoneThe phone rings and a familiar voice gasps, “Mom?” And then sounds of sobbing come over the line. My motherly mind races through several sad scenarios and I have to rein in my thoughts of the possible worst to simply ask, “What’s wrong?”

Then regardless of what my college-aged child has to tell me, I have to keep from judging her and the others involved and try to identify any practical piece of comfort or advice that I can give. Sometimes no ideas come and I just need to let her cry and tell her I love her and I am sorry she is going through this situation. If she’s in her room I can encourage her to grab the comforter I made and wrap it around herself so she can feel the hug I am trying to send through the phone while we talk… If she’s sick or injured I can encourage her to call a classmate to help get her to the school infirmary or to an emergency room. If she’s in an airport in an unfamiliar city exhausted and unsure of when she’ll be able to fly out and learning how uncertain flying on standby can be, then I can encourage her to find a chair in a corner and take a nap until she can think clearly and then call me back. If she’s been hurt by a relationship that isn’t going in the direction she desired, then I can listen to the details and then encourage her to seek out an activity that will keep her mind and body active as she continues to mentally and emotionally process through just what has happened.

Occasionally, her father and I have a practical solution to offer. Her father can talk through how to fix a computer or car problem or we can refer her to a resource that can meet her need. But more often than not we can’t supply the practical solution she needs.

It has taken some years for me to learn that we do not need to have the answers. Our daughter knows we don’t always have the answers. She just needs us to care and to listen. And while we hate to have her go through the pain of these experiences, looking back we can see how each experience has helped her to grow and move forward.

Throughout the years as a college mom, I’ve had to learn that there are many things beyond my control. If I spend too much time worrying about these things, I cannot be the mother my children need me to be. Even when my children are grown and far from home, they rely on me to be clear minded, caring and insightful. I can only be these things by being healthy – eating well, getting enough rest and attending to my soul as well as my body. Just as a mother of a preschooler needs a support system, a mother of college age children also needs a support system. For this reason I have used AffinityCare Student Assistance Plan and sought out other women who currently have or have had college aged children. I ask them questions about how they have coped with their fears and worries and I take their advice. This advice has ranged from encouragement to pray, get more exercise, take a nap, get out and do something fun with your husband, etc. It’s all been good advice and so I extend it to other parents who need to comfort their college children across the miles.

Home for the Holidays

Posted October 28th, 2009 by collegemomindebt and filed in Parent to Parent
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Before your college student daughter (or son) comes home for the holidays there are some things you should probably tell her such as:

  1. We’ve remodeled your room – it is now an office.
  2. You will be bunking in your sister’s room.
  3. Most of your things are stored in boxes in the garage.  You can retrieve them when you graduate and get your own place to live.
  4. Your dog has something like Alzheimer’s and may treat you like a stranger.
  5. Your sisters have been waiting for you to get home.  They expect you to empty the dishwasher and scrub the tubs again.
  6. You’re right – life is not fair – I am raising your younger siblings differently than I raised you.
  7. I never said I knew everything.  You just thought I did until you got to college and learned better.
  8. That new vocabulary you’ve learned at school can be used at home if it is said in a respectful manner (and is acceptable in mixed company who actually know what you’re saying) just in case I should accidentally begin repeating what you’re saying.
  9. The hours you kept at school will not be the hours you keep at home.
  10. What you ate at school will not be what you eat at home unless you pay for it, cook it and clean up afterwards.

Humor aside, it is important to share with your student any changes that have been made in their absence and to exchange expectations for how the time at home will be spent.  Health changes in any member of the family, pets or close friends or associates are especially important to share.

Waiting at the Airport

While at home your student will want to participate in some of your family’s holiday traditions but also will want to spend time reconnecting with friends from high school and the community.  Talking through the family calendar and how your student will reintegrate into that calendar will save a lot of grief.
It is also important for you to be aware that your student may look, talk, walk, dress and eat differently than before she went away to school.  Some students gain the “Freshman 10 to 50” pounds and others may lose weight.  It is also not uncommon for them to have a radically new hair style and perhaps hair color.

It is also important to know that your student may get sick while at home.  I know that nearly every holiday when I came home after a semester away I would be sick for at least three days.  At school I couldn’t afford to get sick, but when I got home and knew I was finally in a place where I’d be helped I could get sick.  I remember how frustrated my mother was when it would take the whole two weeks home just to get me rested and well enough to send me back to school, but I am so thankful she took this role in helping me be successful in college.

One note for you as parent is that it will help if you find other parents who have recently had children in college.  You can compare notes with them and hopefully find some ways to help your family make the transitions ahead with good humor and ease.

The Difficulty of Giving Relationship Advice

Posted October 20th, 2009 by collegemomindebt and filed in Parent to Parent
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While at college my daughters have developed new relationships. As they have explored these relationships they have asked me to be a sounding board, someone with whom they can talk about these relationships.

If asked, my daughters would tell you that I do fairly well when it comes to providing ideas on how to improve relationships with other women at school. However, they would also tell you that my advice is not very helpful when it comes to relationships with men. This is because there is one significant barrier regarding relationships with men. That barrier is vocabulary.

Couple

You see, the language of relationships between men and women has radically changed since I was a girl.

In the late 1960s “going steady” was something fifth and sixth graders did. A boy and girl who were going steady actually never really went anywhere together off the school grounds. It simply was a term that meant they liked each other and wanted to be considered exclusive in their relationship and might even exchange gifts like friendship or Mizpah half hearts that made up a whole necklace or a tin of homemade fudge for a fountain pen.

In the 1970s and early 1980’s “dating” meant that a young man and young woman scheduled an activity together and would use that time to explore whether they wanted to spend even more time together. Dating could occur as group dating or as solo dating and solo dating a series of different young men was acceptable as long as physical contact was limited. And then, when dating would become limited to just one young man, that man then was titled “boyfriend”.

The next steps could include “becoming promised” (signified by a promise ring), “becoming engaged” (signified by an engagement ring) and then getting married (signified by an elaborate ceremony).

For my daughters, “going steady” is an unknown term replaced by “going out”, “going with” and “going together” which each can mean something different (don’t ask me about the distinctions between them because even after eight years of conversations I still “don’t get it”). However, it is possible that all three “going” phrases don’t actually mean going anywhere together. What I consider really noncommittal questions like “do you want to hang out” and “are we dating now” can mean “will you be my boyfriend?” and “having a dtr” means having a conversation in which the couple defines the relationship.

There are also regional differences in terms. In one private college in a small mid-western town “they’re frugaling” means that everyone believes this couple is “dating” (planning on getting married) but they haven’t admitted it publicly yet.

So as a parent what do I do about this communication gap? I simply say, “When you are at home, my definitions apply. When you are with your friends and acquaintances at school you can use your own terms.”
So is there any consolation in this? Yes, I can better understand now my parents and grandparents frustration when they were mentoring me about heterosexual relationships. They used phrases like “getting pinned” (signified by the young man giving the girl his fraternity pin) and “courting”.
Even with our very best efforts as the older generation, we need others to come alongside our young adult offspring to help them navigate new relationships because we simply aren’t going to be able to “get it right” all the time.

College and Depression

Posted October 16th, 2009 by collegemomindebt and filed in Depression
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Campus WalkWhen I was a college student, I was hit by depression from more than one direction. I was over 2,000 miles from home. I was the oldest of four siblings and until I left for college I had had significant responsibility for the daily routine of my two youngest siblings. When I left home for school, not only was my personal routine seriously disrupted, but also my family’s routine at home was seriously disrupted. My parents had a rocky relationship and the “D” word was often brought up in front of my younger siblings. For most of my college years my father was laid off from his long-time employer. My mother suffered from a serious thyroid condition and for monetary reasons was not taking her medicine. Reports from my siblings at home about threats of suicide and heated arguments prompted me to phone home as often as I could afford to do so. However, as a first generation four year college student on a full-ride scholarship from a low income family, I couldn’t afford to fly home and make things better. I could only phone home and try to listen, speak encouragement and pray.

At the same time that all this was going on at home, I was very lonely at school. As a freshman I didn’t realize that campus shut down for the holidays and I was brought to tears when I realized I had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. My roommate was only hours from home but she didn’t like me. She had hoped for an affluent roommate who could afford to invite her home for the holidays. Needless to say I was a big disappointment to her. Thankfully, another classmate took pity on me and invited me home with her and I had a lovely and restful week with her family.

Not only was my mom highly depressed during my college years, but through my four years at college as I walked through campus there were times when I thought of dying and even had specific ideas of how that could happen. Prior to college I had never had suicidal thoughts. At home I had had a place I could go (a hogsback or big hill behind my house that I could climb up) and from there I could either scream out loud with no one to hear me or just sit and let the wind blow as I looked down at my house, my high school and the town where I lived and worked. Getting that perspective from on high served to calm me and help me put the issues in my life in proper perspective. At school I had nowhere where I felt I could safely get away from people. While I was doing well in my classes, I often had thoughts that the school had made a mistake, I thought I wasn’t really good enough to be there.

Thankfully, I found friends who could sympathize with my depression and loneliness. Many of these friends were students from other countries – some of whom pointed out that I was actually further from home than they were. One friend my freshman year was an upper class student who had a severe eating disorder. Her own struggles had caused her to be very observant and perceptive and she picked up on some of my behaviors as indicating depression. She took me aside and expressed her concern and just that simple conversation helped me feel I wasn’t as alone as I thought.

Now as a mother of three daughters, I am happy to report that so far none of my daughters have exhibited depression behaviors and yet they have each had friends who did. Each time a friend has confided suicidal thoughts to one of my daughters, I have encouraged that daughter to seek out one adult who that friend trusted and I have supported my daughter in contacting that adult to ask for help in addressing the situation. Each time the friend at first was angry over what she perceived as a breach in confidentiality, but then as that one trustworthy adult actually helped implement an intervention within a few days the friend was thankful that my daughter cared enough to enlist help.

From experience, I know that depression, especially in the form of suicidal thoughts, is serious, and usually requires the help of professionals to get safely beyond. Because I know struggles happen even in healthy families, I encourage people to use the resources that are available to them and I am happy to recommend resources like www.studentassistanceplan.com. I subscribe to this service for my daughters because it is an affordable support system for students who don’t have a hogsback to climb or a friend who’s been there to help when help is needed. The peace of mind is well worth the low monthly expense.

Advice from Mom Regarding College Anxiety

Posted September 15th, 2009 by collegemomindebt and filed in Anxiety, Parent to Parent

girl in collegeWhen my daughters call or Skype me to ask for advice on how to deal with anxiety in college (whether it be handling separation anxiety or overcoming test anxiety), the first thing I say is that it is possible to be calm even in a storm.  I remind them that it is normal to be somewhat stressed when they are away from home and to be anxious before exams, but that being overly anxious is not a necessary evil.

I ask them for the details of what is stressing them and often find that there are multiple issues going on all at once including homesickness, unresolved relationship issues, lack of sleep, unhealthy diet and a lack of normal routines.

I ask a series of questions such as do you have the comforter I made you?  Who can you talk to there about this?  What are you doing for exercise?  How much sleep are you getting?  Is there any opportunity to take a short nap?  How often, how much, when and what are you eating?

As I get responses, I say things like, Okay, wrap yourself up in the comforter so you can feel yourself hugged while we talk…  I think you should run that by your friend (or mentor) to get more feedback before you make a decision…  Make time to take a run at least three times a week, you know how you feel better when you are running regularly.  Find a church or small group that will help you stay on track with your faith…  I’m serious about getting at least 8 hours of sleep a day and getting into a regular schedule, you’ll be amazed how a lot of these issues will get better when you can simply tackle them with a clear and rested mind… Is there something you can take into the room when you take your test?  I know I always feel better when I have a fist full of sharpened pencils in my hand…  Stop eating all the sugar and caffeine, you know you feel better when you eat healthy…  Do the simple things like make your bed and empty the garbage can, you’ll find that you and your roommate are happier when you do… Rather than talk to one friend about another friend, have you tried talking directly to the one who is bothering  you?  It’s better to keep things simple and involve as few people as possible when you are having a disagreement.

While this may sound like a lot of nagging, it’s the basic stuff that my daughters want to hear from me.  And when the simple stuff is not enough, it’s my job to help refer them to other resources that can go deeper.  There are a lot of great resources available.  There are people on campus that can be sought out such as the residency advisor, school counselor, school chaplain or dean of students.  Plus there is a medical clinic on campus and free crisis phone lines.  There are also online resources such as www.campuscalm.com with its 10 affirmations to calm college student stress.

And when these resources don’t go deep enough or feel confidential enough, there also is the Student Assistance Plan that provides confidential professional support by telephone 24/7.  This plan provides mental health, relationship, legal and financial counseling to my daughters for less cost than the medical plan I have for our dog.  It gives my daughters and me peace of mind to know that they are each equipped to respond to minor and major sources of stress even when far from home.  And when their stress is reduced, so is mine.  Funny how it works that way even when they’re not at home.