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The Right Treatment

Learn how Acadia Healthcare is helping college students struggling with mental health and co-existing disorders get the right treatment they need.

By Patti Zielinski

College is a time of transition, with emerging adults experiencing newfound freedoms —and their corresponding responsibilities. They are now in charge of their lives as they never have been before, forging new social relationships, discovering and developing their interests and facing individual challenges.

Transitional times can also trigger mental health issues and lead to a variety of disordered behaviors that can accompany such concerns. According to a 2018 report issued by the American College Health Association, 63 percent of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming” anxiety in the past year and more than 40 percent stated that depression kept them from functioning.

College is often the time when young people begin to engage in substance use. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that on any given day 1.2 million full-time college students drink alcohol, over 700,000 use marijuana, over 11,000 use cocaine and close to 5,000 use heroin.

Many of these students who struggled with mental health and disorders prior to college find that the pressures of college exacerbate these conditions. They are increasingly turning to their colleges for mental health or substance use help or are being identified as “at risk” by the school and assigned a case manager to assist them with services such as counseling, advocacy, psychological assessments and, if necessary, finding treatment outside of the school environment.

Laurel Donley

Collegiate case managers work with limited resources to get these increasing numbers of students the help they need, says Laurel Donley, president of the Higher Education Case Managers Association (HECMA), which has a membership of over 725 active members across United States, Canada and Mexico, at more than 600 institutions, and a case manager at the University of North Carolina – School of the Arts. “It gets challenging when a student needs treatment outside of the college and in an area closer to their home or elsewhere that we are not familiar,” she says. “Historically, it was a grassroots operation: We would ask on our listserv if any member could recommend a therapist in a certain city. Then, once we found one, there would be a lot of paperwork and follow-up, which took time away from other students at the school. This could easily tax our limited staffs.”

Enter Tom Bennett. For close to fifteen years, the past four as the Higher Education Recovery Coordinator for Acadia Healthcare he has worked with colleges and universities to find off-campus treatment options for students who need help. He receives calls from a variety of departments at colleges — student affairs, counseling centers, residential life and case managers. “Frequently, when a student comes across a university’s radar with a mental health issue, such as anxiety, depression, low self esteem, mood disorder, eating disorder or substance use, the school may contact me to ask if I can help find a treatment placement for them or they will provide my name and contact information to the parents.”

After students sign HIPAA and FERPA forms, which allow the university to share information that is relative to proper treatment with Bennett, the student or their family contacts him for the next step. “By the time everyone gets to me, all parties are on the same page about the student needing treatment. We just need to determine what the most appropriate treatment is,” he says. “During these discussions, I often learn from the family what the university might not be aware of, like what may have happened with the students in high school, their prior treatment or what is happening with the family.”

Tom Bennett

If the student decides to stay in school, Bennett says a Treatment Placement Specialist® can become involved to help them find the services they need locally. As an initiative of Acadia Healthcare, Treatment Placement Specialists® act as a trusted partner assisting individuals and their families in locating the most appropriate level of care off campus for any number of behavioral health and substance use concerns. If students choose to withdraw, Bennett searches for two to three optimal treatment facility suggestions, taking into account the individual student’s condition, the family’s resources, geography and insurance needs, and enlists the assistance of Acadia’s Treatment Placement Specialists® around the country as needed. He helps with the withdrawal process and then encourages the signing of a release by the student for the university from the treatment facility to follow the students through treatment so the university can be kept informed of their progress through treatment. “This allows the university and me to work together to create a continuing care plan for students once they return to campus,” he says.

He also works to make sure that the road to re-enrollment — if the student chooses to return to that school — is smooth. For example, if the student received a scholarship, he will check to see if it could be put on hold or delayed.

Bennett looks beyond Acadia’s portfolio of programs. “It’s about doing what’s right for the person who is needing treatment,” he says. Between 25 percent and 40 percent of Bennett’s placements are with non-Acadia programs. “The hardest part for schools and parents to understand is that there is no charge, cost or fee to the student, parents or school for helping guide them through the minefields of treatment centers that may not provide what the student needs.”

“Looking for outside treatment for a student and following up through treatment is very time-intensive,” Donley says. “We know that when Tom is involved no balls are being dropped. He is always in touch with us.”

“My focus is on the underlying mental health issues that may be causing a student to self-medicate with substances. We are not looking to simply get these students into ‘rehab’ to treat their substance abuse as an addiction. We want to do the deeper, more intensive work to diagnose and treat their underlying mental health needs,” he says. “It’s really about restoring their hope in themselves. Once they have completed treatment and are wondering what is next, we can have the conversation about returning to school.”

When a student is ready to re-enroll, Bennett steps in again, helping the student to navigate issues ranging from conduct to grades to school choice. “While it’s my fondest dream for a student to return to the college they left, that is not always the case,” Bennett says. “If the student wants to transfer schools to perhaps change majors or to attend a school with a collegiate recovery program, we can offer other schools to consider.”

Donley says the paperwork management that Bennett provides is a major asset of the collaboration. “If a student is truly in a crisis state and needs help, it’s important for us to figure out how to get them that help but also to keep in our sights that there are certain steps that need to be done if the student wishes to return to school. We need to ensure there are no obstacles to re-enrollment. Tom helps provide the medical documentation that states a student is ready to return and the recommendations for follow-up care on campus or in the community.”

A Successful Collaboration

Bennett credits case managers and other student services departments at schools for their work in fostering well-being and recovery. “The part I play in helping students and families navigate today’s treatment environment would not be possible if HECMA members and their colleagues in various student affairs departments didn’t trust the collaboration,” he says. “It’s the case managers who show the compassion and understanding to guide students through their withdrawal from classes when they decide to leave and to address their needs and develop their continuing care plan when they’re ready to return.”

HECMA’s knowledge of the availability and access to the national network of Treatment Placement Specialists® ensures the student continuing care no matter where in the country they enter treatment or what area of the country the family is in should the student go back home until the time is right to return to classes.

“Working with Tom allows us to make sure nothing is falling through the cracks,” Donley says. “We know that when he’s working with these students he’s giving the families the best care.”

Donley says that Bennett also supports HECMA in terms of professional development. “For example, one of the issues I’m working with him now is on disordered eating, which is a big issue on campuses now, and what meets the criteria for disordered eating,” she says. “Having him help us stay on top of current issues and helping to educate us is also very important.”

Bennett and Acadia also are assisting HECMA in sponsoring Case Management Faculty in conducting daylong seminars for case managers across the country. The first program was held in December in Athens, Ga. “We will be conducting Case Management Foundation training with the assistance of Bennett and Acadia Healthcare and are able to bring experts in Higher Education Case Management to different parts of the country, making continuing education more accessible to members and non-members,” she says.

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