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8 Tips for Managing College With Chronic Illness

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Living with chronic illness in general is tough in its own right, but imagine trying to manage your symptoms while needing to attend class every day and keep up with activities and assignments for four years of your life — perhaps longer, depending on your program. Welcome to college as a spoonie.

Even if you enjoy learning, trying to make it through college with chronic illness can be hard. When you add stress to a body that is already impacted by chronic conditions, it can compound your symptoms. You may have more flare-ups in pain, a weakened immune system, or generally upset any balance that you may have established before heading off to college. 

Being a college student and spoonie often presents more bad days than good compared to your healthier counterparts, especially when you have the weight of school responsibilities over you. How are you supposed to keep your grades up, do extracurricular activities AND practice good self-care

We asked The Mighty community how they manage their chronic illness while in college and compiled a list of tips to hopefully help you stay more on top of things too.

Here’s what they told us:

1. Organize Your Assignments

Staying organized is tough when brain fog or other symptoms get in the way. Try to keep things simple and find an organization system that works for you. Getting an agenda or planner is an easy solution for keeping up with what needs to get done, but if you are more ambitious you could develop your own bullet journal system.

I have to make sure I do my work ahead of time as much as I can so I don’t get behind if I flare up. I manage my homework into realistic checklists; accomplishing one or two items a day rather than overwhelming myself with too many things at once. — Nicole H

I also try to stay as organized as possible. I make a list of all my assignments due at the start of every semester (and date they are due). I mark them off as I complete them. This way, I never forget about assignments and I also feel accomplished when I’m able to mark something off my list. I look at this list pretty much daily. It’s been super helpful and it’s made things less stressful. — Ashley S.

Need some agenda ideas? Check out these helpful Mighty articles:

2. Plan Your Schedule Wisely

When it comes to registering for classes, think carefully about when in the day you function best. It may not be the best decision to sign up for an 8 a.m. class if fatigue is one of your chief complaints. Also, consider your workload, social life, and other obligations — don’t spread yourself too thin.

I tried to keep my schedule all on either Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday depending on the semester. I tried not to take super early classes, and I always tried to give myself a break in the afternoon where I could study if I was up to it, or I could take a nap. I tried hard to plan my schedule around the hours that are typically more difficult… I also took a smaller course load, only 9 or 12 hours a semester, usually 9 and then I took classes over the summer to get the hours in. I ended up taking 5 years, but that’s becoming pretty normal, even for healthy students! — Jamie S.

3. Ask for Accommodations

Accommodations can be a lifesaver in school. With proper documentation of your conditions, you may be able to get extra time on exams and quizzes, fluidity with attendance, and other things that may help you academically. If you have a service animal, you will also qualify for housing accommodations on campus. If you don’t know where to begin, set up an appointment with your school’s disabilities office to find out what to do.

I used the 504 plan/disability accommodations to have a note taker, miss class, turn papers in late if I was really sick etc. My teachers were very helpful during my lupus diagnosis. — Janeen Q.

Still stuck? Check out these other resources to learn more about asking for accommodations:

4. Focus on What You Need

Even for non-disabled individuals, comparing yourself to others can be an issue. When you live with chronic illness, this may happen more often when you set your standards based on what somebody else might be doing. Try to acknowledge that yes, you may need more time than others or can’t do as many things, but that’s OK. Finding a balance for you and your conditions is key, and you’ll get where you need to go.

Be sure to give yourself time to rest and try not to compare yourself to your peers. I spent my first year comparing myself to my friends and beating myself up because I couldn’t keep up with them in so many ways and it set my health back trying to keep up. Now I do things on my own time and once I explained it to my friends, they were more than willing to accommodate my schedule. If they don’t want to stay in with you and watch tv instead of partying, or if they try to force you to go out, they aren’t your friends. — Nicolas G.

5. Speak With Your Professors

It’s intimidating to go up to a professor and explain your health situation to them, but you’d be surprised just how receptive the majority of teachers can be. You don’t need to tell them your entire history, but being open about what you live with and your limitations can be truly helpful. By letting your professors in the loop, they may also be able to make sure you get the accommodations you need to succeed.

As an instructor / PhD student, I’d recommend being upfront about your needs. My university has a disabled student program, so definitely get in touch to secure the accommodations you need. Communication with professors you feel comfortable with is worth the effort. — Magna

6. Find the Type of School That Works for You

In this age of technological advances, there are more options for education than ever. A traditional classroom on campus may work for you, but an online program may be better for your needs. If you’re not sure what would benefit you most, do your research on online programs. Your university may already have classes that are offered online too.

I switched to entirely online. It allows me to work at my own pace (within deadlines, in my school’s case), and lets me do my work flexibly when I’m feeling better. — R. Shay H. 

I have both on campus and online classes which means I am only in a classroom twice a week. This allows me to do most of my school work from my bedroom. I take frequent breaks when completing assignments and I try to work ahead in class to account for any flairs that might come up. — Alix M.

7. Keep Supplies in Your Backpack

Depending on your condition, it may be helpful to carry at least some supplies in your backpack just in case you feel a flare or other medical event coming on. Make a list of what is portable enough — like a water bottle, medication, medical ID or snacks. In the moment, even these small emergency supplies may help get you through.

I keep a pouch of medicines in my bag at all times so if anything happens at school, I can access what I need right away. — Nicole H.

Here’s what others in The Mighty’s chronic illness community carry with them just in case:

8. Don’t Forget Self-Care

Last, and maybe most difficult, is practicing good self-care habits.  Even when you have so many competing school obligations, it’s all about finding what works best for you to keep up with things that you know help you stay healthy. This doesn’t have to be applying a face mask or doing your nails; it can be drinking a cup of tea, journaling or just making sure you get enough sleep each day — anything healthy and helpful to your mind and body.

I plan at least one day a week where I do absolutely nothing but things that I want. Whether it’s taking a bath, doing a face mask, or laying in bed all day with heating pads. I learned the hard way that self-care is incredibly important while taking a full course load. — Shyanne S.

Need some self-care ideas? Check out these other Mighty articles for inspiration:

This list of ways to manage chronic illness while at college is by no means exhaustive. There are many more possibilities to help students with chronic illness through college — like forming strong bonds with understanding friends, seeking advisement from your college and growing a sense of acceptance about your conditions — but hopefully, this list gives you a place to start.

Originally published: September 30, 2019
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