Tuesday, September 22, 2015

NYTimes: ‘Dear Parent, Your Child Has Had a Psychotic Break’

I sit in my small office at the university counseling center, sighing as I pick up the phone to make the call that I always dread. I have worked as a psychiatrist with college students for 20 years, and this part never gets easier. One, two, three rings, and the mother of a student who had been in my office minutes earlier answers the phone.

I introduce myself and then deliver the news: "I've had to hospitalize your son, Jacob."

"What are you talking about?" she says. "There's nothing wrong with my son."

I explain that his roommates brought him in earlier that day. They told me that he hadn't slept in a week and had barely had anything to eat or drink.

"I know," she says. "They called me. But he's just adjusting to school. He arrived a month ago. He's a freshman, for God's sake."

I concede that freshmen can have a tough time adjusting, but emphasize that Jacob is having a psychotic episode. He was afraid to leave my office, I tell her, because he felt he was being followed on campus. He said he had not been able to get any work done because he was confused and distracted by voices in his head. The hospital, I explain, is the safest place for him right now.

"My son was an all-A student in high school," she maintains. "He won debate competitions."
I understand her denial. I have college-age children. If one of them became psychotic, I would be in shock. And I would be angry with the messenger.

"So why couldn't you wait until I got there to see what was going on?" she asks. "I could get a flight in a few days and meet with you and my son."

Jacob's mother lives a thousand miles away. There is no father in the picture.

I agree that it would have been better if she and Jacob and I could have met in my office together. But I reiterate that it wouldn't have been safe to wait until she got here. Jacob was so confused and scared that I wasn't sure he could have made it back to his dorm.

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