Your college years are an exciting time. For some, this means more independence, new friends, and potentially, a brand new city to explore. A significant life change like graduating high school and attending college can be stressful for any student, and being diagnosed with a mental illness could mean you’ll experience a unique set of challenges. However, managing a mental health condition in college is possible. With support and planning, college students with a mental health diagnosis can thrive. Here are the tools and information to help you do just that.
What to consider when choosing a college
Many colleges have resources for students with a variety of health conditions and diagnoses. This might include on-campus health centers and resource centers that can help you find counseling services, support groups, and other mental health services nearby. Before choosing a college, you should consider the following questions:
- Do you want to live at home or on-campus?
- Do you learn best in small class settings or are large classes more your speed?
- What resources are offered on your college campus? For example, on-campus clinics, counselors, or a disability resource center.
- What resources are in the community? For example, counseling centers, support groups, faith-based organizations, and hospitals or doctor’s offices.
- Will you have a support system, like family or friends, close by?
- Can you continue the same level of mental health treatment that you received at home?
- If you are in recovery for substance abuse, are there AA or NA groups nearby?
Answering these questions will give you a better idea of which colleges will best support you throughout your academic career.
How to prepare for the transition to college
Regardless of the diagnosis, having a medical condition means you should have a few documents in order to ensure that your care continues wherever you go. The following documents will be especially useful:
- Individualized Education Plan, or IEP
- 504 Plan
- Documentation of your diagnosis
- Summary of your grades and performance in high school
- Any records or information you have about academic accommodations or supportive services you’ve received that have worked well for you while you were in school
You may also consider completing a medical information disclosure form so that someone you trust like a parent or guardian can have access to your medical records in case of emergency.
Thankfully, you may not have to do transition planning on your own. If you receive services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), your school will work with you to create a transition plan. You can always reach out to your academic advisor at your high school or even your doctor or psychologist to help.
Having a plan and the necessary documents in place will make it easier for you to receive academic accommodations at your college or university. Accommodations like priority registration, reduced course loads, course substitutions, transportation services, or tutoring and mentoring may be available.
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How to create a mental health plan
Planning and preparation are key to succeeding after a drastic life change such as attending college for the first time and potentially moving away from home. Creating a plan with friends and loved ones will help you be prepared in case of an emergency or if you need to plan a leave of absence from school. Here are a few things to consider:
- Identify your support system
Have names and contact information readily available in case someone needs to be notified in an emergency or if you just need someone to talk to for support. They can also help you keep track of doctor or therapist appointments and medication refills. It helps to establish a routine and check-in regularly with someone you trust.
- Familiarize yourself with your school’s policies
What is required to take a leave of absence? Do you need supportive documents from your doctor or psychiatrist? What is the protocol for returning to school? Will you have to pay back any loans or scholarships during your absence? What will happen to your financial aid? Understanding your school’s policies before an emergency or a leave of absence will prepare you for the unexpected.
- Tell people about your diagnosis
Every person has a different comfort level when it comes to talking about their mental health condition. Some are more open while others are more reserved, and that’s okay. However, there are a few people that would benefit from knowing about your diagnosis. Your academic advisor, on-campus healthcare provider, resident advisor, or a trusted professor are just some of those who can help you manage your diagnosis and succeed while in school.
- Communicate your emergency plan with loved ones
In an emergency, your support system will need to be notified. Establish an emergency contact and keep a list of emergency resources, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and 2-1-1. It may also be helpful to have a list of hospitals with a behavioral health unit and locations that receive individuals who are Baker Acted. In a life-threatening emergency, you should always call 9-1-1. Request that a Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, is dispatched to your location. CITs are specially equipped to deal with a mental health emergency.
Your college years are some of the most exciting and regardless of which college you decide to attend, there is help available when you need to seek mental health treatment. Consider visiting a counseling center close to your college to find a counselor who can help you establish a treatment plan that works for you.