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

In short, you absolutely can. Colleges have specific departments that are there to help make your college career a success. They are typically called the Office of Accessibility or the Office of Disability. There are also mental health counseling services at most colleges that can help you short-term and link you with mental health professionals in the community for long-term help.

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?

Make plans from day one at college to stay in contact with your family and friends. This could be daily or weekly check-ins over text/email, phone, or video chat. You can set up a plan for if you feel you need extra support in a given moment.

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, if your high school offers services in the guidance office, use those services. If you have a teacher who you really like, ask for their help. The biggest part of having resources is to use them. You may be surprised how many people will be invested in helping you.

During college, you first have to identify the resources available to you. During open houses, orientation, or talking with an admissions officer, ask about mental health resources and academic resources on campus. During campus visits, go check out these departments. You can introduce yourself to the counseling department, the accessibility office, and the housing office (if you plan to live on campus) during your visit and get literature from them about how they can help you.

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?

Schools that are aware of their mental health resources and can easily direct you to them for information are schools that value students with mental health challenges or a psychiatric disability. If a school is unsure where to direct you when you ask that question, you may likely have a hard time utilizing those services once you are attending school there.

Schools that ask about any diagnosed disability you have and give you options for accommodations in classes also value students with mental health challenges or a psychiatric disability. You will be asked to fill out paperwork and provide documentation regarding your disability to receive these accommodations (such as extra time on exams or note takers), but please know that this is standard procedure and is necessary to get you the help you may need.

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

Where is your disability/accessibility office? Where is your counseling office? If there is a student leading the tour, it often helps to ask if they know people who work with these departments and see if you can talk with anyone in-person during your visit. If you talk to people in these offices, ask them if you can visit the first week of classes to check in. If you qualify for accommodations, ask what paperwork they will need to get started and if you can set that up prior to the first week of classes.

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?

If it is in your comfort zone to talk openly about your disability, you can definitely bring it up during the application process if asked or you can volunteer it. The benefit to this is that you can set up services for yourself as soon as possible and be organized for the first week of school.

If you do not want to disclose a disability, you do not have to. You can go your entire college career without anyone on campus needing to know your struggles. However, still know where services are in case you need them. You can always get help after your acceptance or anytime during your college career.

I have had students come to the counseling department during their campus visit and introduce themselves. We have worked with that student to meet their Residential Advisors early, if they are living in the dorms. We have made sure all their paperwork is complete with the Office of Accessibility prior to the start of classes. We also have an initial meeting set-up with them to check-in during their first few weeks on campus.

I have also had students talk to the admissions officers directly asking about resources and services on campus to help them. Admissions officers should be aware of all the mental health resources on campus and can connect you with them.

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?

Roadblocks can occur with faculty who are uneducated about accommodations and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you have registered with the Office of Disabilities/Accessibilities and are given accommodations, all faculty must adhere to those accommodations. If you find a professor giving you a difficult time, ask the people in the disabilities office to help you. It is their job to help you navigate this situation and they can speak to faculty on your behalf if you’d like them to. You can also use your support system to give you emotional support during this time. Roadblocks like this can be stressful and trigger negative emotions. Use your tools and the people around you to help you through it.

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?

Similar to the answer above, it is not fully your job to educate faculty. If you feel comfortable talking about it and letting them know your needs, go for it. If you do not feel comfortable, ask someone in the counseling or disabilities/accessibility office to help you talk to that faculty member.

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?

Students can receive support from:

  • On-campus mental health counselors
  • Office of Disabilities/Accessibilities
  • Office of Housing/Residential and your Resident Advisor (if living on campus)
  • Academic tutors/Writing centers

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

Join a club. Students who get involved on campus and work with other students can have a platform to educate and address stigmas.

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

Show up to your appointments and follow through on your goal setting. If you have meetings with a tutor, go. If you have a session with a counselor, attend. If your disabilities staff asks you to come to a testing center for your exam, go. In college, you have to work to set up your relationships with these people. Once you have them, use them.

Lauren Rigney

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Lauren Rigney is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a private practice in NYC. She was previously an Associate Director of Counseling and Wellness at NYIT in Manhattan where she worked with the Office of Accessibility, trained faculty and staff in student mental health needs, and worked directly with students as a therapist and advocate. She continues to work with college-aged students and other adults in her private practice. Lauren is trained and specializes in anxiety work, LGBTQ+ populations, and mindfulness techniques. She is a former college basketball player and coach who has a unique and effective approach to working with clients. Lauren can be found on the web at www.laurenrigney.com.