Helping College-Bound Students Deal with Chronic Pain

A recent story from NPR brought attention to the issues faced by teenagers who struggle with mental illness who want to go to college. These bright and motivated students face many complicated questions and concerns that their struggles with mental illness will cause them too much difficulty. In more serious cases, there’s the fear that the stresses of school and being away from home could exacerbate mental illnesses and lead to panic attacks and other problems.

But what about young people who deal with problems like chronic physical pain or injury that limits mobility or can hinder day-to-day activity? For these, students, trying to go to college can present many unknowns. In the case of chronic pain, many of these students also deal with depression or other mental illnesses that tend to coincide with pain disorders. Though we tend to think of chronic pain as an issue faced by older people, Dr. Sol Kamson notes that it can affect people of all ages.

Depending on the nature of the chronic pain, students may find it hard to perform basic tasks like getting up and getting ready for class, walking to and from buildings, carrying heavy books or backpacks, or sitting for long periods of time to do homework. For students dealing with an injury that limits mobility or functionality, college campuses can present all kinds of challenges, even with recent improvements that have been made to most old buildings to improve access for the disabled. While most schools have made appropriate adjustments to be in accordance with legal requirements that protect the rights of disabled students, these students are likely to still face challenges that their peers wouldn’t have to consider. For example, it may take them longer to get across campus, or they may need to have help provided by the school in order to get around. For some students, this can cause social concerns or can make students feel unfairly burdened. It’s hard enough to make the adjustment to attending college. What can parents do to help their children make the adjustment more easily?

• While you are with your son or daughter at orientation or while you are visiting the school in advance, take some time to explore the facilities to make sure your child knows how to get around during their first week. For example, if your teen needs access to a wheelchair ramp or elevators, visit the buildings where classes will be held to make sure they know where everything is. This will help alleviate some of their stress about being ready for the first week.

• Reach out in advance to the school to make sure you and your child have a thorough understanding about the support services available to your child. Know what your insurance will cover and what free supportive services the school offers. You may even ask to make a special appointment with a counselor or coordinator around the time of orientation so you and your child can have a good understanding of where they can turn if they need help.

• Know the emergency options. Make sure you know where the nearest hospital is and how they can get there. Understand what can be covered by your insurance. Know when the student health services office is open, and when your child will need to turn to outside services. If your child needs to come home or if you need to make a visit at short notice, figure out how you can make this happen. If you’re far away but you have family or friends living in the area of their school, make sure your child has all appropriate phone numbers in case they need help at short notice.

Going off to college is a scary time, no matter what your child’s situation. But being prepared for every scenario and understanding the options can take a lot of pressure off for both you and your new college student.