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

Know that with the right support, you can thrive! Mental health challenges and psychiatric disabilities are common among college students, and many colleges offer on-campus support and can guide you to off-campus resources. It can be helpful to conduct some research in advance about your school’s psychiatric and counseling services, as well as to learn how to access the care you may need while you’re there so they’re more easily accessible when you need them.

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?

Think about who your supports are in person. When you’re struggling, do you reach out to your parents, friends, siblings, or anyone else in particular? Discuss ways to stay in regular contact when you’re at school, especially if things get difficult. Some options include:

  • Regular phone calls or FaceTime check-ins
  • Text or email updates as a way to keep your supports in the loop on days you don’t feel like talking
  • Planned vacations and trips to see family and friends

Make sure your supports have your local contact information. If possible, share the name and number of a college friend or roommate they can reach if you need extra help from someone in person.

Finally, be honest with yourself about what distance feels comfortable to you. If you are concerned that, say, you may really struggle being across the country from your family, then have an open conversation about this and consider how to make the move work in a way that makes you feel supported.

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

It can be helpful to call, research, and ideally visit the potential college disability services offices to ask questions about the supports and services they provide for students with psychiatric disabilities. If the college can introduce you to others students who share similar disabilities, connecting with them can also provide you with up-to-date resources and tips that only a peer can provide. This may include recommended providers, student groups, and peer support services.

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?

It’s important to consider what resources the university offers and the location of the school itself. Many schools provide counseling/therapy and some provide medication management, but these are often short-term solutions.

If you anticipate that you’ll need continuous care for a semester or more, consider whether those resources are available off-campus near the college, and how to access them. Access considerations include:

  • Distance of the services from campus
  • Public transportation options, including services like Uber and Lyft
  • Costs for services, both using and not using insurance

It can also be helpful to check the mental health withdrawal and re-entry process in advance, in case you ever face that need throughout your time at school.

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

Ask the tour coordinator about the health services on campus and how students access them. Student guides can be a great resource for finding out about the mental health “climate” on campus, including attitudes toward mental health and whether university officials, advisers, and professors are supportive of student mental health needs.

For example, you may ask:

  • Do students feel comfortable coming forward with mental health issues, and do they feel heard and understood by the university?
  • What local student advocacy groups are available on campus?
  • What are typical wait times for mental health appointments?
  • Are there medication prescribers on campus?

If the tour coordinator doesn’t have this information, you can ask these questions at the health center directly, too.

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?

The most significant roadblocks I observe students facing in college include:

  • Challenges in adapting new routines: Students may feel overwhelmed by all the changes to their routine, and the adjustments they need to make.
  • Adjusting to being away from home: Students attending college away from home can struggle to adjust to both a new geography and being far from family and friends.
  • Academic stressors: Many students feel inundated by the number of assignments they have, or the hours they are dedicating to studying.
  • Balancing various responsibilities: It’s common for students to have trouble finding a good balance between completing your schoolwork, getting involved in extracurricular activities, clubs, and internships, and establishing and maintaining friendships.
  • Roommate and professor stressors: Finally, many students struggle with relationships with roommate and/or professors.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk about it! Here are some resources to get through these situations:

  • Share your feelings first with whomever you feel most safe with, such as your parents, a friend or fellow student, a pastor, etc.
  • Call your health center or counseling service to get an appointment with a counselor to talk things through and find out about resources available to you.
  • Remember to focus on your own self-care: Eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, avoiding drugs and excessive alcohol intake, and connecting with loved ones. Routine self-care will help keep you grounded, helping you navigate said roadblocks.

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

It often helps to be as clear and communicative as possible on what your concerns are, especially regarding how your mental health challenges could impact your academic performance. If you think you’ll need accommodations over the course of the school year, it’s a good idea to specify those as much as possible up front.

Talk with an adviser to develop strategies for potential obstacles such as getting to classes regularly and on time, completing assignments, sitting for midterms and finals, and any other required tasks like group projects.

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?

First, colleges can make sure they have the staff and resources to support their students. Hire and train mental health providers who understand and can respond to the needs of college students. Have enough staff and support so that appointment wait times are kept to a minimum. Be transparent with students and parents about what services the school does and does not offer, as well as how to access any off-campus resources. If a referral coordinator is available, keeping off-campus provider availability and insurance information up-to-date can be a huge benefit to students and parents.

Having a robust presentation on mental health and university resources at freshman orientation, and periodically throughout the school year, is a great way to get the word out to students. It also demonstrates that the school takes mental health concerns seriously. Wellness events like stressbuster workshops, guided mindfulness meditations, talks on specific mental health topics, or coordinating to have therapy dogs available during midterms and finals are great ways to show students you take their needs seriously. For professors, they can support student mental health by allowing for accommodations with advance approval (alternative testing, giving presentations, etc.).

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

Join a student support or advocacy group like Active Minds. Bring up your concerns to health center staff. Never discourage a friend or peer from sharing their mental health concerns or from seeking care.

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

Students who are proactive about seeking help when they’re having a hard time may find the following tools to be useful:

  • Zencare.co: Therapy search website to find off-campus therapists.
  • On-campus counseling services: Therapy, medication management, and therapy support groups offered by the university.
  • Headspace and Calm: Meditation apps to find quiet amidst the busyness of college.
  • ADHD executive functioning coach: Support to balance the effects of ADHD on academics.
  • Student clubs: Active Minds, Project LETS, Lean On Me
  • Free peer texting support: Lean On Me, Seven Cups of Tea, Samaritans
  • Online therapy tools: Talkspace, Betterhelp, Maven Clinic, Doctor on Demand
  • Uber and Lyft: Ridesharing companies have allowed students to more easily access off-campus therapists.

Any final thoughts for us?

Struggling with a mental health issue or disability doesn’t mean you can’t survive and thrive in college! Given the proper tools and resources to succeed, you might be surprised at how resilient and capable you are, even in a new and at times stressful environment like college. Focus on self-care and be proactive about your mental health needs so you can give your all to your school experience!

Katie DiMuzio

Partnerships Manager at Zencare.co

Katie is the partnerships manager at Zencare.co, a website for easily finding quality-vetted therapists. At Zencare.co, Katie works with university counseling services to help students access excellent off-campus mental health care services. A licensed therapist, Katie was previously a clinician at the Pentagon and the Veterans Health Administration, and most recently worked as a psychiatric case manager and referral coordinator at George Washington University.