5 Signs It Might Be Time to Take a Mental Health Leave From College


This post was written by Jason Bowman, the creator and Director of Fountain House’s College Re-Entry Program, which helps academically-engaged 18 to 30-year-old college students, who withdraw from their studies due to mental health challenges, return to college and successfully reach their educational goals. 

College can be exhilarating, but it can also be a vulnerable time for students with mental health challenges. Most college students I work with who are diagnosed with major depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar or schizophrenia, first experienced symptoms in their late teens or early 20s, while they were in college. Since this often coincides with the first time many college students are living on their own without a proper support system, it is all too easy for these students to quickly lose their ability to maintain “normal” or appropriate psychological defenses.  

While it can be difficult to assess a negative situation for oneself, in my experience, there are some notable signs that it might be better to take a medical leave and get support than it would be to struggle through another academic semester. What are those signs? How can you tell it is a good idea to take a leave?

Here are some things to look for:

1. Growing isolation.

You have stopped communicating with your friends, professors, counseling center staff. People are often unable to reach you. Your friends are seriously concerned about you. Everyone you meet asks how you are in a worried tone.

2. Noticeable symptoms.

You are experiencing overwhelming anxiety or depression. You cannot get out of bed because of anxiety or sadness. Simple acts of your daily life like showering or eating might feel too difficult.

3. Excessive substance use.

You are drinking more alcohol or using drugs to make yourself feel better when you are stressed. The amount you use is getting in the way of your ability to take care of your work and maybe even yourself. Often, overusing alcohol or drugs covers up some of the symptoms that come with mental health issues (psychosis, depression, mania).

4. Increasing number of incompletes.

You are behind on assignments with no plan to catch up. You are dropping multiple classes each semester or have frequent incompletes. While many students have occasional incompletes or drop a course every once in a while, frequent incompletes or dropped classes may be a sign of a bigger issue.

5. Available support services on or around your campus are not meeting your needs.

While the decision to take a medical leave is a serious one, it is important to recognize it is totally acceptable and fine to do so. Most colleges have policies and procedures in place that allow students the time they need to recover from a health condition. Giving your brain and body the clinical treatment and self-care regimen it needs to recover is a smart decision.

I often remind students that many undergraduates take more than four years to earn a degree. In fact, at most public universities, only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. In addition, taking a medical leave can be better than struggling through with lower grades than you’d hoped and then figuring out how to get your GPA back up so you can graduate.

So, if you are struggling in school and don’t know what to do, reach out to your counseling center, family, and/or friends and let them help you. If you identify with one or more of the five signs outlined above, consider taking a medical leave so you can heal and return to college successfully.   

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Thinkstock photo via Digital Vision. 


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