College Mental Health Supports for Your Student

Date Posted

June 12, 2023


Lindsay Schwartz

Chelsea Cobb College Mental Health

College is a big adjustment for young adults and their families. For college-bound students with a mental health diagnosis, the transition can pose additional challenges. Chelsea Cobb, MA, LMHC, is co-director of the College Mental Health Educational Program (CMHEP) at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. We sat down with Chelsea to learn about the services offered through CMHEP, current trends in college mental health, and advice for caregivers of college-bound students with mental health diagnoses.

Note: Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Describe the work you do at Boston University (BU) 

I co-direct the College Mental Health Education Programs, at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. Our flagship program is NITEO, which is Latin for “to thrive.” This speaks to one of the core values here at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation: helping students identify a valued role they want to fulfill– whether that be as a worker, a student, or a community member– and then identifying what skills and supports they need in order to move toward that role. NITEO was founded in 2014 after we saw a gap in services, students would take a leave of absence from college due to a mental health interruption, go home and sit on the couch, go to therapy once a week, and then they would go back to school. Not having practiced the skills that resulted in their leave. This process wasn’t successful; they would often have another interruption.

What is NITEO? How does it support college mental health?

Black Student Looking at Camera Sitting with Computer College Mental Health

NITEO is a program for students on leave for a mental health condition who are looking to navigate going back to school, whether that be full-time, part-time, or identifying if school is the right next step. Students take both academic and wellness classes, where they practice the skills that go into being a student or worker – for example, getting to class on time, time management, and advocating for accommodations if needed. 

We know that you can’t be an effective student or person if you are not taking care of yourself holistically, so we help students to identify all components of wellness. For example, are they sleeping, are they eating, are they moving their body? Who are they connected to? How is their support system? What is the environment like where they study and sleep? 

The NITEO program is 15 weeks, like a college semester. It simulates the college experience, so students practice attending classes, managing their time, connecting with peers, and submitting assignments. We run the NITEO program in the fall and the spring, and then we have a condensed version for 7 weeks in the summer.

How do students enroll in NITEO?

There is an online application that students can submit. Historically, it tends to be the parents or therapist/mental health provider who reaches out initially, but we always meet with the student prior to accepting them into the program. It is often preferential when the student can come in person, as NITEO is an in person program, see the space, get to know us and what they are walking into. Then, it’s really just identifying readiness for the program. We need to know that we can meet the students goals and needs, All the rest can be developed, practiced and navigated.

Who can apply to NITEO?

We work with any student who is 18 to 25 years old. Our students come from all over the world. The one caveat is that we don’t have residential housing, so most of our students have some sort of Massachusetts connection. However, that’s not a requirement by any means. You can come from anywhere and partake in our program. We offer financial assistance and scholarships as we never want that to be the barrier to attending our programs and are proud to say that to date it has not been.

Why is it important for institutes of higher learning to be proactively involved in college student mental health?

Colleges and universities retain their students by investing in their students. We are at a pivotal point where students are being much more vocal about what they need and what they expect from schools. When schools aren’t offering that, the students will go elsewhere. Students vote with their feet. When they are not showing up, it’s because the school is not providing what they need.

What are some of the most innovative college mental health programs around the country today, and what gaps do they fill?

I think a lot of schools are starting to get creative. I also think that what we have been able to do at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation is unique. We have the capability to be responsive to service gaps, provide training, curriculum development, and implementation at BU and other schools.  We have done this with our LEAD: Learn, Access, Explore and Develop, curriculum nationally and internationally. As well as our coaching model and Healthy Relationships class which is a restorative justice curriculum. 

What are some current college mental health trends?

It’s an interesting time right now because what is being done politically is very different from what students are advocating for. Students are much more open to discussing mental health – not all students, there’s definitely still stigma – but they are much more engaged in the conversation than ever before. Students are advocating for each other in a way that I haven’t seen previously. They are thoughtful in communicating with their peers and making sure no one feels “othered.” 

That being said, there is a very real societal trauma that has happened and continues to happen. Most college students know someone who has been involved in some sort of mass shooting, if they haven’t experienced it themselves. There are higher rates of transgender students and students who identify as queer, but their rights are being threatened. So we are holding two truths in terms of this progressive generation of young adults and what is being pushed by lawmakers and politicians.

What can parents of college-bound students who live with a mental health diagnosis do to help prepare their young adults for success at college?

Two Students Standing Outside Brick Dorm Building Holding BoxesI think with any relationship, there is a fine line between empowering and enabling, especially with someone who identifies as having a mental health condition. At certain times, you’re going to have to step in and be there for them. But it’s a dance, knowing when you need to do that and when they can do it on their own. If you never step back, young adults don’t have the opportunity to build the skills they need to become independent.

I think one of the biggest challenges for college-aged students, regardless of whether they have a mental health diagnosis, is that they go from a regimented high school schedule and a home environment where, for a lot of students, they are being fed and there is someone there asking if they did their homework. Then, they go off to college and there is no routine, and they are expected to do all of these things on their own. They’re expected to budget, feed themselves, and clean both their environments and themselves. It’s kind of like we throw adulthood at them and, at the same time, say, “Decide what you are going to do for the rest of your life.” That’s a lot for any 18-year-old. Add a mental health condition and it can be debilitating, so helping them to develop those skills prior to college is crucial.

How should parents and their young adults evaluate colleges?

I think you want to look for a couple of different things. First, if you are able to, go to visit the school while it is in session, not over the summer and not on spring break. Go and get the vibe, and get a feel for the students. If that is not an option, ask the school to be put in touch with a student. Ask the student questions because that’s who you’re potentially going to school with, that’s who knows the layout. I would talk to as many students at the school as possible. 

Second, if you are someone who identifies as having a mental health condition, see what resources are and are not available for you. Be in touch prior to going. August and September are very busy for universities; they are inundated with requests. If you can get a head start and reach out to the Office of Disabilities, Department of Behavioral Medicine, or whoever it is that you have identified as a resource, prior to showing up on campus, this is only going to benefit you.

Lindsay Schwartz is a psychotherapist in private practice in Acton, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders. She has a background in school counseling and a special interest in mindfulness-based treatments.  Lindsay earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English from Williams College, and her Master’s degree in Social Work from Simmons College. In her free time, Lindsay enjoys writing, reading, running, and spending time with her husband and 2 children.