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"Nurse Barb" offers college-ready health primer for recent graduates


courtesy of University of Oregon
University health centers offer more than just doctors on call – students can find travel and vaccination services, sexual health resources including free condoms, mental health services and often even a pharmacy.

Mountain View-based nurse-practitioner Barbara Dehn, known as author and presenter “Nurse Barb,” compiled tips for parents this year as they prepare students for the transition to college.

Eating and sleeping well, study habits, exercise and drug and alcohol choices are key components of a family conversation on the way to college.

But Dehn identified a few key topics that aren’t necessarily as obvious to parents. In an interview with the Town Crier, she provided a checklist of topics families might want to approach as the school year starts. She’s having these discussions herself – her son begins college in Oregon this fall.

Words of wisdom

Dehn’s first piece of advice: Make a family plan about privacy and/or shared health information. Under the law, a student has full medical and academic privacy rights when he or she turns 18. That means that a family needs to discuss what information children will choose to share with their parents, and how. Some families sign health-care proxies, durable power-of-attorney forms or health-care advance directive forms to keep on file with the university. This allows parents – with consent – to access records and participate in health-care decisions.

“You can set boundaries with your children and let them know that we’re not asking for carte blanche,” Dehn said. “Parents know their children really well. If you have a child and you know that they have some challenges – asthma, for instance – you might say that it’s really helpful for you to be able to talk to health-care providers on campus about asthma.”

Other families discuss mental health resources and stress management. Sometimes an orientation visit to the health center, on-campus pharmacy and counseling center can establish where to find assistance on demand.

“You want everyone to be successful, no matter what their challenges are – being open and not being ashamed,” Dehn said. “I highly recommend that parents who know that their children may have some challenges have that conversation at the health center ahead of time, so they’re aware and alert.

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At her son’s university, Dehn was intrigued to see a vaccination corner of the health center for students planning to study abroad, as well as information-sharing authorizations that allowed students to specify exactly when and how parents could participate in their health care. In addition to mental health resources, they start the year with relationship and sexual health information. Dehn has seen young patients with a huge range of comfort levels when it comes to discussing sexual subjects, and she believes in providing an opening for conversation and education, and letting the young person take it from there. University health centers continue the process that parents should start.

“I love that they had free condoms – female condoms, male condoms, lubricant – and they have the kids take a safe and consensual sex class,” Dehn said of her son’s school.

Dehn believes that a self-defense class might be the most helpful summer program for incoming freshmen – girls and boys. Both genders experience sexual assaults on college campuses, and those incidents are among the most underreported crimes, particularly for male victims. Dehn said universities have begun offering self-defense courses though PE departments. Training in physical assertiveness and situation assessment can contribute to safety beyond sexual encounters. Hazing by sports teams or in dorms can lead to physical confrontations, too.

“When trust has been built up and a person is confused and not really sure they’re reading the situation correctly, by the time they’re in an uncomfortable position, they have fewer recourses,” Dehn said. “And drugs and alcohol often play a role in acquaintance assault.”

Difficult conversations

Classes can build out a personal toolkit for assessing and responding to situations with escalating risk. And parents don’t need to wait for college classes to get their children thinking about these topics. Dehn believes that practicing difficult conversations – thinking through situations that might arise with a child, just to start the process of identifying problems and finding resources – should start as early as possible.

Learning how to verbally negotiate new dynamics – with roommates, friends or professors – can start at home. She suggests that parents might introduce a “what-ifs” chat during shared activities or on a drive: What would you do if …? Then what would happen?

“Not every child is communicative, but at least if you put it out there, they’ll realize it could happen,” Dehn said.

For more information on making a healthy transition to college, visit Dehn’s website at nursebarb.com or follow her on Twitter @NurseBarbDehn.

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