Annie's mailbox: Son has mental breakdown at college

Dear Annie: Last fall, we sent our 18-year-old son off to college. He was excited to be living in the dorms, meeting new people and starting new classes. He had dreams and goals. After one month, he had some sort of mental breakdown and was hospitalized for three weeks. He had to drop out of school.

There was no prior warning that something like this might happen. He was an easygoing kid who juggled a lot of activities and seemed to handle pressure well. He spent an entire year overseas on a foreign exchange program. There is no family history of mental illness. We have no idea why this happened or if it could happen again. Even his psychiatrist is unwilling to give his condition a real name, calling it "psychosis not otherwise classified."

Now, four months later, he is still under psychiatric care, taking medication and living at home. He is much improved, has a job, is socializing again and has started classes at a different school. However, he seems to have given up most of the goals he had last fall and won't talk about them.

Since his incident, I have heard an alarming number of stories from other parents and read many articles that mention similar breakdowns. When I was in college 30 years ago, it was unheard of. How many of these students recover and lead happy, productive lives? How many are diagnosed with true mental illness versus a one-time incident brought on by stress or drug use? What are the nation's colleges doing about these problems? My son's school didn't seem to care and, in fact, only seemed interested in avoiding liability. - Concerned About My Son's Future

Dear Concerned: Mental health problems on campus have been studied since the 1930s. The perception that the problems are greater now is likely due to the increase in collecting data, and the identification of mental health issues such as eating disorders, attention deficit, post-traumatic stress, social anxiety and depression. Also, many students living with a serious mental illness are able to attend college today with treatment that was not available 30 years ago.

We contacted Suzanne M. Andriukaitis, executive director of NAMI of Greater Chicago, who said most serious mental illness begins before age 14, but the average delay between the onset of symptoms and achieving an appropriate diagnosis is eight to 10 years. It is often a gradual process, so others ignore or acclimate themselves to the early signs. Late adolescence is when the human brain goes through its final stage of maturation, which includes a process called "pruning." For those who become ill, scientists believe something in the genetic makeup causes missteps in this pruning process. Going away to college is an additional stressor that can aggravate symptoms, and drug and alcohol usage can mask or unmask a psychiatric illness.

Serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression and psychoses are chronic illnesses that need to be managed over the individual's lifetime. There are no cures, but there are effective treatments aimed at bringing the brain chemistry into better balance. Once this process is well underway, the person will benefit from talk therapy and the psychosocial therapies.

Please consider participating in NAMI's 12-week Family to Family Education Program. Find your local chapter through nami.org or call 1-800-950-NAMI (1-800-950-6264).

Dear Annie: You're probably going to catch a firestorm for advising "Lonely in Connecticut" to masturbate since her terminally ill husband has lost interest in sex. I say bravo. It's a reasonable solution to a sad situation. Let the naysayers keep their narrow religious beliefs and sanctimony to themselves. This poor woman is going through enough. - Sympathetic in Seattle

Dear Seattle: Surprisingly, we had fewer objections than anticipated. Thanks for your support.

Annie's Mailbox is written by Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar, longtime editors of the Ann Landers column. Please e-mail your questions to anniesmailbox@comcast.net, or write to: Annie's Mailbox, P.O. Box 118190, Chicago, IL 60611. To find out more about Annie's Mailbox, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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