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

College can be very stressful without additional challenges like mental health concerns, so it’s no wonder you are questioning whether attending college is right for you. The good news is these days there are good supports in place for students with mental health concerns, such as the campus disability resource center, counseling center and student health center. Student support organizations, specifically those geared toward promoting successful mental health coping during your college years, can be great resources as well.

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?

Participate in as many opportunities on campus as possible to get to know others, and volunteer for at least one organization that fits with your personal passion. If you start to struggle with typical concerns, such as homesickness, anxiety or depression, seek the help of the campus counseling center sooner rather than later.

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

I am not very familiar with strategies to address the application process, but I would encourage them to work with the university admissions office and/or the disability resource center on campus.

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?

Obviously, the more opportunities for ongoing professional and peer support in these instances, the better. Seek out schools that offer on-campus psychiatric and counseling care -- and if these services are free or discounted, so much the better. Preview student organization/activities offices to determine whether the college offers extra-curricular involvement for students interested in mental health support and prevention. When looking at credentials of providers, seek schools where providers are licensed.

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

Speak up and ask about not only the type of care provided, but evidence of the quality and satisfaction of mental health and counseling services. Many schools publish student satisfaction and outcome data, and comparing this info, school by school, can help you in making a better informed decision.

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?

I think this is an individual decision. ADA has specific rules in place that prevent public entities from discriminating against individuals due to disability. Speaking up about a mental health concern or disability can certainly help lay the groundwork for success from the first day. Doing so will most likely connect students with the appropriate support resources that are in place at the university to increase the success and satisfaction of students with special needs.

Again, I am not very familiar with strategies to address the disability during the application process, but I would encourage students to work with the university admissions office and/or the disability resource center on campus.

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 adjustment from being dependent on parents and family members to meet many of their needs to becoming essentially self-sufficient is one of the most common roadblocks students encounter to their success. Parents are no longer present to help them get up and get going in the morning. There is no one doing their laundry or helping remind them to do their homework or attend important meetings. Even taking care of themselves and getting proper nutrition and sleep in the campus environment can be huge obstacles for students.

My advice to students is to create a schedule and stick to it. Allot time for study and leisure, but most of all be certain to schedule 7-8 hours per night for sleep. Not getting enough sleep impacts memory, mood and can even affect our immune system in negative ways. If a student has tried the above and is still struggling, it is time to enlist the help of a friend, mentor or counselor.

Another common struggle is relationships. Friendships, romantic relationships and even communicating effectively with teachers can all present special challenges to students. Students seem to cope best when they have a wider base of friendships and when they manage their stress well. If you find yourself struggling to find satisfactory relationships, or if you are worrying a lot or stressed out about your friends or lack thereof, it is a good time to seek out professional help at the counseling center. Discussing patterns in relationships with an objective professional and setting goals for success can make a big difference in whether or not a student develops and maintains healthy, rewarding friendships and other types of relationships.

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?

Academic advisors and faculty are becoming more and more knowledgeable about assisting students with mental health concerns, and most will be able to help. If you have approached your adviser or teacher and you still are not getting the help or understanding you need, the Dean of Students office can usually provide assistance in helping to communicate your needs or concerns to campus staff.

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?

By becoming knowledgeable about student mental health needs and responding appropriately to that need.

This may be in the form of universities and colleges providing educational programming to faculty and staff about assisting students with mental health concerns or disabilities or committing to offering the kinds of services students with mental health concerns need in order to be more successful in their academic pursuits, such as diagnostic testing, counseling and accommodations. They can also become advocates for destigmatizing mental health on campus and by promoting prevention and education.

Students who do not feel they are supported in their special needs and challenges should contact their university’s Dean of Students office to discuss their concern. If they have contacted the Dean of Students office and they still feel their needs are not being addressed, universities and colleges provide student ombudsmen and equity officers to assist in these matters.

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

There are so many opportunities to positively impact mental health awareness and destigmatization on your campus. Join a campus effort, such as a NAMI Students (www.nami.org) organization or the campus chapter of Active Minds (www.activeminds.org). Some campuses have peer support education programs that assist in destigmatization of mental health and psychiatric disabilities.

No student chapters like this on your campus? Then start your own! Another idea is to work with your campus Student Activities office to develop a program for the campus and wider community on understanding mental illness. Bring in speakers who have successfully managed their mental health concerns, watch a related film, hold a panel discussion, or hold a mental health awareness fair on your campus.

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

I think I’ve mostly addressed this one already in previous questions. Students use their own creative and resilient spirits to succeed when faced with mental concerns or disability. They use available resources, such as the Counseling Center, Student Health Center, Disability Resource Center, Learning Diagnostic Center, Dean of Students office, and other available support groups and related student organizations.

Any final thoughts for us?

Sometimes students with mental health concerns experience crises that require the immediate assistance of a professional. Students can in most cases access emergency mental health assistance through their campus counseling center during business hours. After-hours mental health emergency assistance is often provided through a crisis hotline or through residence life assistance. Consult your college or university website for mental health emergency assistance. Nationwide, 24-7 assistance is also available by contacting 911, going to the nearest hospital emergency room or contacting one of the following support agencies:

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Crisis Text Line Text 741741 for a quick reply by a crisis counselor
  • Substance Use Support Line: 800-662-HELP (4357)
  • Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255 and press 1 or Text 838255
  • TrevorLifeline: 866-488-7386 (LGBTQ+ Youth support line)

Rhonda Lesley

Director, Missouri State University Counseling Center

Rhonda Lesley is the director of the Missouri State University Counseling Center in Springfield, Missouri, serving a campus community of more than 24,000 students. Rhonda has been a Licensed Professional Counselor for more than 20 years, focusing primarily in higher education and private practice. She specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, solution-focused brief therapy and using biofeedback, mindfulness/meditation and resiliency in the treatment of anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. Rhonda is a Certified Gottman Therapist, treating couples in research-based therapy, and a Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance.