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 or a psychiatric disability absolutely does not need to impede a student’s ability to succeed in an academic setting. There are resources on and off college campuses that are there to support a student’s adjustment to college or to treat a prior condition. Picking a university setting where your individual needs will be met is entirely attainable. It may take some extra research and additional time to think through how you will best be supported, but it is worth the investment. There are many choices out there and there is a place that can meet your needs both academically and personally.

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?

Having a toolbox of resources that is filled before beginning college is essential. This toolbox should include options and ideas that can be utilized for self-care and to prevent crisis. The core people in your life back home are a big part of this toolbox. Scheduling consistent facetime appointments with loved ones to check-in ensures that the people that know you best continue to stay connected. If your mental health begins to decline, your loved ones will have a sense of what is going on with you before something becomes an emergency. Planning visits ahead of time and knowing exactly when you will see your loved ones is also important, especially during the first year of college.

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

During the application process, students with psychiatric disabilities should ideally communicate with a high school counselor, trusted teacher or academic mentor about how they might be best supported during the college years. Finding a school with student health resources that speak to your individual needs before deciding to apply or attend is essential. While at college, there are a number of ways to gain information and support. A residential life office, counseling center or student health center are some of the avenues where information on mental health resources can be attained.

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?

All students should consider whether the schools they are looking at meet their personal and academic preferences. Issues such as geographic location, university size and areas of academic emphasis are all important to consider. Someone with a mental health challenge should spend even more time thinking ahead about how the university experience might impact their overall state of mind. For some individuals this means staying away from a rainy, cold climate. For others, it means ensuring a small class size. And for someone else, it means making sure there are first class athletic facilities. Mental health is impacted by different factors depending on the person. Working with a college counselor and seeing how you feel during college visits will help you determine a setting that is right for you.

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

Gaining a sense of a school’s climate is not always easy during a college visit. If there are things that are important to you personally, don’t be afraid to ask your tour guide or find a student to talk to. It also helps to be a good observer and treat each visit like a research project. Walk around, take a seat in the cafeteria and attend a class. If you are active politically, find out if there are resources that speak to you. Find out how the school responds to crisis. And, in this age of social media, find ways to connect with current students that will allow you to ask questions that are important to you as you think about them.

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

This is a personal decision. Many students have written amazing essays about their experience of confronting an eating disorder, battling depression or managing symptoms of PTSD. However, this is vulnerable and private information. No one should feel pressured to open up if the act of doing so creates greater distress.

Once a student has been accepted, inquiring directly about the university’s resources for mental health is essential. Choosing a school is a big choice. Making sure that you feel comfortable with the support services available is essential.

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?

Beginning college is a big adjustment for almost everyone. More choices, greater flexibility and a major increase in independence takes time for many 18-year-olds to adjust to. Support with how to balance social, academic and familial pressures is necessary for a lot of undergrads. For this reason, there are many institutions out there that devote a tremendous amount of resources to ensure that there are student support services devoted specifically to the task of helping students adjust. Finding a college that advertises these services and is proactive about helping students before there is a crisis is entirely possible.

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

Experiencing academic advisors and faculty who might not know about the mental health challenges their students are facing can be frustrating and painful. One helpful tactic is to make the problem more concrete. For example, “Professor, I know if I broke my leg you would understand and help support what accommodations I might need. A mental health problem, like a broken leg, requires that I receive support. Here is what I have found most helpful in the past. I am hoping we can work together so that I can get the most from your class.” If this kind of conversation is not possible, ask for help from your college’s student health services. There are advocates on every campus and they are there to make sure you gain the support and understanding you deserve.

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 need to destigmatize mental health problems around their campuses by talking openly about how common and treatable mental health problems are. Skilled and dependable therapists who are trained to work with young adults is essential. Professors, residential advisors and administrators that are well-versed in mental health creates a culture where the entire student body can participate. It also makes it clear that taking care of one another is a core value. This kind of climate will encourage and make it much easier for students to come forward when they are struggling.

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

We have all struggled and/or know someone who has. Mental health problems are as serious as medical problems. And, like a medical condition, treatment is imperative. Opening the door to easier access to treatment means encouraging conversations with everyone.

Most people want to help someone in distress but do not necessarily know how. Honest and ongoing conversation with peers and school leaders who are interested in understanding and being helpful can be a powerful tool for change.

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

Developing a support system both on and off campus is essential. Keeping up with your professional team at home (psychologist, psychiatrist, etc.) and having them communicate with your professional support system at college will help ensure continuity of care. Professional support of any kind is there to making sure your emotional tank stays full. This means maintaining basic self-care needs (sleep, nutrition and exercise) while also balancing social and academic demands. Finding this balance requires a great deal of diligence. The more measures in place to consistently monitor these factors (individual therapy, group therapy, family check-in) the less likely there will be a crisis. Group therapy is an amazing resource for college students. It allows for peer interaction, confidential dialogue and normalizes mental health struggles. There are therapy groups on most college campuses. Seek one out and benefit from the knowledge that you are not alone. If being on campus for mental health treatment feels uncomfortable, ask for private practice referrals.

Dr. Arian Elfant

Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Elfant opened her practice in New Orleans in 2003. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Nova Southeastern University in 2001 and completed her predoctoral and postdoctoral training at Vanderbilt University’s Psychological and Counseling Center. Dr. Elfant continued to work at Vanderbilt as a clinician, supervisor, and as the Director of Assessment Services until August 2003.

Her practice focuses on providing individual therapy to adults and adolescents and she devotes a portion of her practice to working with couples. Additionally, Dr. Elfant conducts child assessments for the purposes of admission into private school.

Dr. Elfant loves any opportunity to consult, teach, or conduct outreach. She presently serves on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Tulane University School of Medicine and has previously served on the faculty at LSU Health Sciences Center and Loyola University’s City College.