What advice would you give students who don’t believe they can attend college with mental health challenges or a psychiatric disability?

Mental health challenges are really common among students -- 1 in 4 young adults have a diagnosable mental illness. For those who don’t believe they can attend college because of such challenges, I would suggest seeking out the systems and resources in place at prospective colleges that can enable you to manage your mental health and still give you the opportunities to do your best. It can be scary and overwhelming to start looking into colleges, but researching where you can go for help beforehand can help ease the intimidation factor of going to college with a mental health challenge or psychiatric disability.

What are some ways you suggest students start to build a long-distance support system if they are planning to attend college away from friends or family?

Keeping in touch with your support system is really important. If you’re someone who prefers structure, try something like a series of weekly calendar invitations to video chat with your friends and family. If you prefer something more chill, you can promise to never leave a text message unanswered for longer than a week or ask your friends and family to text you if they haven’t heard from you in a while. Something my friends and I do is have code words we send to each other that indicate our crisis mode and how badly we need to talk. You need to find what communication system works best for you, and it's okay to figure it out through trial and error!

Can you recommend any resources for other students in a similar disability situation to help them with challenges during the application process? During college?

Something pretty cool about our generation is the variety of resources available to us through technology. I’m the Support Community Lead for an app called Supportiv, where users are anonymously connected to others who are struggling with similar issues and can talk things through with live moderators facilitating the conversations. Also, if you’re comfortable reaching out to your high school counselors, they may be aware of colleges with specific resources that can cater to your needs. Applying to college can be really overwhelming, so having a support system in place and giving yourself mental health breaks from the stress is so important. During your first few weeks of college, I recommend that you visit your school’s center for students with disabilities as well as your school’s mental health services center to learn more about resources available to you as both preventative measures and help in times of crisis.

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with psychiatric disabilities or mental health challenges should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

Mental health challenges and psychiatric disabilities are very individual, and everyone needs to choose the university campus that's right for them. Some things to consider are whether you would be more productive on a big campus or a small campus, available ways to de-stress (clubs, sports, etc.), and the type of environment where you feel most comfortable (do you prefer the city, or is accessibility to nature more important to you?). You can also rely on your intuition and your gut feelings about the best university for you. While this deliberation process may be a privilege not available to everyone, focus on finding the best fit among the universities available to you. One idea is to make a list of pros and cons for each school and then try to find possible solutions for those cons. The process of choosing a university is not an exact science and is often limited by what you can reasonably do, but there are ways to prepare for a better university experience.

If a student does tour a campus, what are some questions they should consider asking the university?

Some questions you may want to consider include what resources are specifically available to you (such as who handles disability and mental health needs for students) and the processes required to attain this support. Another element you may want to ask about is support available from other students -- for example, is there someone you could connect with that has been through this process before? Are there student clubs or other individuals who could advocate on your behalf and inform you of available resources and services and their views on them? Finally, explore how a school would serve your individual needs by asking questions about financial feasibility, accessibility on campus, and any other aspects of the college experience that may be affected by your unique challenges.

Should students be upfront with universities about their disabilities during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university?

College is all about discovering yourself, and everyone has a different path. If you want to be upfront during the application process and learn about the support available to you, that's awesome. However, it’s also okay if you want to figure that stuff out later once you’re accepted or attending a university. The most important thing is to have access to help if you need it.

If so, what are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?

When students write about their disability not as a weakness that will hinder them but instead as a way they have gained strength through learning to overcome the associated challenges, that can be a successful strategy. Being honest and speaking your truth is vital to a successful application.

What are the most significant roadblocks you have found students encounter once they attend college? What are some strategies/support resources to get through these situations?

It’s easy to get swept up in college because there are so many choices, people to meet, and things to do. It can be hard to figure out the right path for you, and you can easily get overwhelmed and end up in crisis mode. The best advice I have is to be prepared by knowing what’s available to you -- both in preventing crises and knowing where to go if they happen. Additionally, I would encourage students to look into not only what their school provides, but also outside resources in their community or that are available through technology.

Do you have advice for students on ways to interact with academic advisers and faculty who may not have specific knowledge in dealing with people who have mental health challenges or psychiatric disabilities?

You only need to share what you are comfortable with sharing; you're not obligated to tell your entire story if you don't want to. It's so easy for people to dismiss “invisible” illnesses, but the truth is that these illnesses cause actual challenges, and you might have to explain that. You can try seeking advice from other students who have gone through this before and exploring your school’s centers for disabilities and mental health challenges to find the best ways to approach advisers and professors.

What are ways a college can successfully support students with mental health challenges or psychiatric disabilities? Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

Colleges being transparent and public about the services and resources they offer from the moment students step on campus is so important. I also think listening to students about what the college is and isn't doing well can help make these resources even better. There should be different ways for students to seek help; not everyone is comfortable going to a health center, so more informal methods should also be available. Also, the mental health needs of different communities can vary. People can experience different cultural and racial pressures and challenges, and there should be resources that are geared specifically towards these issues. Colleges also need to take into account financial pressures, commuting issues, time constraints, and all the other needs students have when structuring resources. Students should know both where they can go for support even before school starts and what the school is doing to improve these resources.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with mental health or psychiatric disabilities on a college campus?

Stigma can be so difficult and disheartening to combat. I would encourage students to be as open as is comfortable for them. It’s important for students to stick to their truths that their mental health or psychiatric disabilities do cause challenges, and they have the right to support for these challenges. I would also encourage students to turn to their support systems when they need help and to explore what perpetuates these stigmas and how everyone can work together to end them for future students.

What are tools you see students with these challenges using to succeed once they get to college?

The strength of students with these challenges is incredible. The tools they use to succeed are their resolve and motivation to seek help when they need and taking time to focus on self-care. There will definitely be hard days, and I hope that these students will become equipped with the knowledge of what to do to get out of those slumps -- whether it’s making a plan with their roommate, texting their parents, going for a run, listening to music, or whatever it takes to overcome their challenges.

Any final thoughts for us?

There is an app for nearly everything nowadays because of how powerful technology is for our generation. I work for Supportiv, an app where you can have anonymous and confidential conversations with peers who are dealing with a situation similar to yours. This support is available 24/7, with conversations facilitated by trained moderators who can kick out trolls and refer resources, and it's free for any students out there going through difficulties with the code at http://www.supportiv.com/teens.

Anisha Makhija

Support Community Lead at Supportiv

Anisha Makhija is the Support Community Lead at Supportiv, an online network that offers anonymous peer support on any topic 24/7. She recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in psychology and biology. During her time at Berkeley, Anisha served as both the undergraduate representative on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health and director of the Mental Health Commission for students. Mental health advocacy is her passion, and she continues to volunteer with organizations like Crisis Text Line while preparing to apply to medical school in pursuit of a career in psychiatry.