Calvin Chin: “Look for changes in behavior or presentation.”
Ricardo Barros

Attending Princeton is a life-changing experience, but it can be a challenging one. With mental-health concerns among college students increasing nationwide, many Princeton parents may wonder how they can help their children living on campus, and what they’re entitled to know about their children’s health.

During the 2017–18 academic year, more than 2,000 students visited the University’s office of Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). But parents often don’t know about their children’s struggles: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law governing student privacy, prohibits colleges from sharing information in student records with parents except in narrow exceptions. These exceptions include a health or safety emergency; if parents document that the student is claimed as a tax dependent; or if the student provides written authorization. Even in these cases, colleges can use their discretion in deciding whether to release records or notify family members. 

At Princeton, if a student is believed to be at imminent risk for harm to self or someone else, the normal protocol is a referral for inpatient hospitalization, said CPS director Calvin Chin. The student would be transported to the emergency room for evaluation, and if he or she then consents to hospitalization or if an involuntary commitment is necessary, the student would be admitted to an inpatient facility.

What Parents Can Do

Talk to your student — ask how you can be helpful and be direct about your concerns.

Encourage your child to take advantage of University resources (such as CPS or residential-college staff).

Empathize and be as supportive as possible. 

Let your student know you love her/him — care packages, texting, and phone calls go a long way.

Feel free to share concerns about your student with the residential-college dean. In an emergency, contact Public Safety if there is a concern about the immediate safety of your child.

University policy is to notify parents whenever a student is hospitalized, Chin said, and the director of student life in the student’s residential college would contact them within 24 hours. 

Most health and safety emergencies will involve a hospitalization, Chin said, but it’s possible that residential-college administrators could have “serious concerns” about a student’s health and safety without a hospital admission and would seek a meeting with the student and parents to address the issue. 

Absent an emergency, he said, he does not believe residential-college administrators would communicate with parents without the student’s consent because of FERPA. CPS also does not communicate with parents without the student’s consent. 

“We’re bound by confidentiality because of the ethics of our profession and the laws that govern psychotherapy,” Chin said. “However, we absolutely recognize that families can be an incredibly supportive part of a student’s experience.” 

The demand for counseling services spikes with academic deadlines — before midterms, finals, and when other academic work is due. CPS staff will often direct students to campus resources, such as the Writing Center, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, or staff within the residential colleges. 

In addition, more than 1,000 faculty, students, and staff have completed Princeton Distress Awareness and Response training, which instructs bystanders how to recognize signs of distress in students and how to connect them to the resources they may need.

Chin said parents should take cues from their child on how they can be most helpful if the student is in distress.

“I would look for changes in behavior or presentation,” he said. “If their child is normally outgoing and gregarious and then suddenly seems more shut down, that could be a warning sign. Is the student sleeping through class? Falling behind in their work? Withdrawing from their friends? All of these could be warning signs. I would encourage parents to ask about how their students are doing. Usually, students will be open about whether they are feeling sad or anxious or overwhelmed.”