Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Adjusting to College Life: Tips for a Smooth Transition

Each year as summer fades, millions of college students head back to campus for another exciting year. But for those heading off to college for the first time, the new environment can take some getting used to. Often for the first time, many of these young adults are living away from their parents. Combined with a more rigorous academic schedule, new living situations, and making new friends, adjusting to college life can be challenging say Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrists Gene Beresin, MD, and Steve Schlozman, MD.

“For the first time in a long time these young adults are dealing with several major life changes all at once,” says Beresin. “Under normal circumstances, changing schools can be a stressful event. But when it comes to adjusting to college life, these students are also away from the security and comfort of home, making new friends, and in some cases, learning to work around an entirely new academic schedule.”

 Newfound freedom, while often invigorating, can also cause additional stress, says Schlozman.

 “For perhaps the first time in their lives, parents aren’t telling them how to behave,” he says. “College students need to learn to set their own schedules, and avoid distractions like an overactive social life which can often result in alcohol and drug abuse.”

 Beresin and Schlozman also note that making new friends, while extremely important, can add additional stresses. At this stage in their brain development, first-time college students can have very strong opinions about how they see the world. When socializing with peers who have a different view, young adults can often feel a sense of alienation and discomfort. In these cases, young people need to understand that differences in opinion are healthy, but such conflicts should be resolved in a healthy, respectful way.

 From a medical standpoint, the age of onset for many psychiatric syndromes occurs exactly around this time and properly identifying and managing these disorders is crucial to the health and well-being of the student.

 “It’s possible for young people to develop psychiatric disorders at this time in their development,” says Beresin. “Along with these particular students, those who are already diagnosed with conditions like learning disabilities, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, also face challenges when adjusting to college life. It’s important for these particular students to work with their current caregivers and develop a treatment plan ahead of time.”

 The key, say Beresin and Schlozman, is good communication and preparation prior to leaving for school. They suggest setting a scheduled time each week, even for only a few minutes, to have a phone conversation with parents. Simple conversations like these can not only provide students with a sense of comfort and safety, but also give parents a chance to listen to their kids and be aware of any noticeable changes. It’s important for both parties, says Schlozman, to know what resources are available if students do have a hard time adjusting.

 “College health centers have come along way,” he says. “Most colleges and universities offer physical, mental, and emotional support services and it’s important for parents and kids to make themselves aware of these services prior to arriving on campus.”

 “More than anything, we encourage parents and kids to take a deep breath and take these changes slowly,” says Beresin. “A calm, thoughtful approach combined with open communication with peers and parents will go along way to making this adjustment not only smooth, but enjoyable.”


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