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7 Tips for Managing Mental Illness in College


College is usually an exciting time. Some people consider it the best years of their lives. There’s lots of freedom, parties, new friends and greater responsibility. Yet, college can be stressful from the academic to social to financial concerns. If you have a mental illness, then it can complicate your college experience even more. However, there are ways to navigate this new landscape.

I completed college without any hiccups. However, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during graduate school at the age of 23. During my last year of graduate school, I was depressed in the fall and manic in the spring. When I was depressed, I dealt with insomnia and found it hard to get out of bed. I cried every single morning before I went to student-teaching.

I was enrolled in one course, a seminar class, but I was unable to get any of the assignments done because the depression made it hard to focus. When the mania arrived in the spring I welcomed the increase in energy and productivity, but the mania soon got out of control leading to a three-week hospitalization. Upon my release, I decided to withdraw from graduate school. It would take me two additional years to finish my coursework and graduate. Currently, I’m back in graduate school for a second master’s degree. The advice I present to you here, I’ve implemented in my own life. I now offer it to you in the hopes that you might find it useful.

1. Use your resources.

Many colleges have an Office of Disability. Psychiatric illnesses are considered disabilities. If you register with the Office of Disability, then you might qualify for accommodations, such as extended time to complete assignments or excused absences among other benefits. The registration process might be a bit bureaucratic, but it is worth it to get registered if you have a diagnosed condition. Also, visit your professors’ office hours. Introduce yourself. Let your professors see you as a person concerned about his or her progress. Additionally, use the Writing Center or peer tutoring.

2. Seek treatment.

Colleges offer counseling services. Don’t struggle in silence. There are many benefits to talk therapy. One of which is having a professional listen to you without judgment. We can’t always expect the same from our family and friends. Your college might have a limit on the number of counseling sessions they’ll provide you. Another option is to see a psychiatrist if you have considered psychotropic medications. Please note, not everyone wants to take medicine or responds well to medicine. If a psychiatrist suggests medicine, then be sure to do your research and ask lots of questions.

3. Engage in self-care.

Make sure you are getting adequate amounts of sleep. In college, it is tempting to stay up all hours of night, but maintaining a regular sleep schedule is crucial when managing mental illness. Eat healthy. Do something physical. Go for a walk, exercise or dance. Spend time with your friends. In short, self-care is whatever maintains, sustains and fulfills you. Find out what that is, and do more of it.

4. Manage your expectations.

If you have to attend school part-time or withdraw for a period of time, do so. Your health is more important. Also, don’t compare your course load or grades to your peers. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Of course, there is going to be variance in your experiences and outcomes. Lastly, don’t over-commit yourself to a ton of clubs, activities and paid work on top of your course load. In college, you have to become an excellent time manager.

5. Don’t isolate.

It’s easy to withdraw into yourself, to hide out in your room, away from the world. Try not to. One of the easiest ways to socialize is over a meal. Eat in the dining hall with friends.

6. Exercise.

Exercise is already included on this list under self-care, but it’s so important it deserves further mention and elaboration. There are many benefits to exercising, both physical and mental. The mental benefits include stress reduction, increased energy and improved brain function among others. In short, you’ll perform better in class and feel better.

7. Avoid or minimize the use of alcohol or drugs.

College is often viewed as a time of drug experimentation. If you are on psychotropic medicines, then alcohol can interfere with the effectiveness of the medicine. Discuss with your doctor about your intake. Be honest.

Whether you’ve had your mental illness for years or are newly diagnosed, you can manage in college and in your life post-college. It all boils down to developing appropriate coping skills. Be self-reflective, listen to your body and learn from your past behaviors. Always seek help. You do not have to navigate any of this alone. Good luck!

Image via Thinkstock.