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12 Reminders for Students Going to College With a Mental Illness

Starting college is both an exciting and challenging experience, so it’s normal to feel apprehensive about what “college life” will have in store. If you’re someone living with a mental illness, this transition can feel daunting. Not only are you starting a new journey, but you might need extra help and adjustments “typical” students don’t need to think about. And that is totally OK. There’s no “right” way to do college, and although it can be challenging, it’s not impossible to make it through.

Because you’re not alone in this, we asked some people in our mental health community what tips they would give a student entering college with a mental illness — and added some of our own.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you walk on campus this fall.

1. Calendars and To-Do Lists Are Your Friends

You already have so much going on in your head, when the assignments start pouring in, you’ll thank yourself later for getting everything you can down on paper (or your laptop, or an audio recording… whatever works for you). This way, if depression makes you a little forgetful, or if anxiety makes it hard to focus, you’ll have something to keep you on task. Also, to-do lists can inspire a sense of accomplishment. Celebrate crossing off even the smallest tasks. Keeping this perspective can help your mental health overall, and will hopefully prevent you from feeling so overwhelmed.

“Make yourself a list of what you need to accomplish each week. Even if it’s something small. That way the semester won’t look so daunting.” — Kaitlyn C.

“Don’t look at the whole staircase! Focus on the small steps that get you to the top! I struggled with severe OCD in college due to the overwhelming stress of looking at the whole picture. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until my current full-time job that I finally figured out my mantra, ‘One step at a time.’ Only focus on that day, that moment! That’s all you have to get through!” — Krissy M.

“College is conquerable. One life hack is to focus on one task at a time after you made sure you’re ready to face it. I just graduated from college and this life hack got me through it.” — Ellain G.

We recommend: These planners for keeping your life — and health — organized. 

2. Keep Track of Appointments and Your Medication

While organizing your school work, don’t forget to make time for your health. If you took medication or went to therapy before entering college, keep it up. Don’t forget to factor those things into your schedule. It doesn’t matter how organized your school work is if your mental health isn’t being managed.

Don’t quit your medication. If it’s not helping, talk to your doctor and get on a new one. Don’t overload yourself. Make sure you communicate what’s going on with your professors — they’ll be more understanding than you think.” — Di P. 

“Reach out for any and all available help. Extra time, therapy offered to students, etc. Whatever is offered use it. It will help you manage life with mental illness and college.” — Katie B.

We recommend: Medisafe Pill Reminder & Medication Tracker app (free), Round Health app (free), PillBox from Schizophrenic.NYC ($12), or find a cute pill box you won’t mind pulling out in class on Etsy.

3. Keep Track of Your Mood

In the whirlwind of classes and extracurriculars, slow down and pay attention to how you’re doing every once in a while. Whether this means tracking your mood in a more formal way or just journaling every once in a while to get your thoughts out, take a moment, whether it be daily or weekly, to check in with yourself. If something’s off, don’t ignore it — catching something early can make all the difference.

We recommend: iMoodJournal app ($1.99), Moods app (free), or check out these creative ways to track your moods.

4. It’s Cool to Go to the Counseling Center

Don’t be afraid to take advantage of your school’s counseling center. It’s a free service that’s provided for you because you’re a student, and this support can help. If you’re someone who lives with a mental illness, it’s also important for the counseling staff to know who you are in case there’s a crisis.

“See campus counseling or health services asap, if only to get your illness in writing. This will give a basis later on if your school offers learning assistance. Also, develop a suicide crisis plan now. When a counselor is debating whether to send you to the hospital, having alternate options is good for you both. Also, try to find which hospital is good in the area and has a psych ward, in case you have to go.” — Kirstie C.

5. Don’t Make Mental Illness Your Dirty, Little Secret

If there’s one thing that mental illness can feed on, it’s secrecy. While it can be hard to know when, where and how to open up to people about living with a mental illness, don’t let shame keep you in hiding. Sure, it doesn’t have to be the first thing you tell your freshman roommate, but when you can, build a support system who knows your truth. This means friends, but also advisors and professors who can support you on your journey. Having people know what you’re dealing with can help you stay accountable, and also means you’ll have a support system to lean on if times get tough.

“Don’t hide it. I’ve found my college friends are way more accepting and willing to help me out than any high school ones were. This goes the same for the professors. If you explain to them what’s going on I’ve found they are a lot more willing to help and make accommodations than if you were to try and struggle through it.” — Marissa M.

“Don’t be afraid to open up to your friends or professors. I know it’s hard, the anxiety will eat you. But when you overcome the struggle, it’s much of a relief and self-help. Step back and breathe when you’re not feeling well or the attacks are there. Help yourself first by trying to gather all your senses. Again, I know it’s hard but you gotta try to help yourself and try not to be afraid asking for help from other people.” — Kristel F.

6. Have a Social Life, but Don’t Prioritize It Over Your Mental Health

As much as you learn and grow in college, it can also be a time to explore drinking and partying. There might be pressure to jump into this scene, but you get to decide what’s right for you. Don’t deprive yourself of having a good time, but make sure this “good time” doesn’t mean sacrificing your mental health. Try to find people who will respect when you need to take it easy and who won’t pressure you to do something you know isn’t good for you.

“Choose friends who will invite you out and encourage healthy sociability, but who won’t pressure you to go out late at night when you need to keep a steady sleep schedule or stay sober in order to attain or maintain balance. People who respect the days when you ‘just can’t’ and encourage you to take care of yourself are more valuable than the ‘typical college experience’ of not sleeping, cramming, and wrecking your body/mind with substances to help dull the anxiety.” — Mary M.

7. Join Clubs on Campus (Mental Health-Related or Not)

What do you love to do? Chances are, there’s a student group for that. Whether it’s a political group, religious group or just a hobby that makes you happy, joining clubs and extracurriculars can give you something to look forward to outside your classes. Plus, they’re a great way to make friends. If you’re having trouble “finding your tribe,” joining a mental health-conscious group is an easy way to find people you might be able to connect with.

We recommend: Active Minds, Project Heal, National Alliance on Mental Illness

8. Get Support During Class

If you know your mental health challenges will affect your school work — or even if you just want a little extra support — you have the right to get accommodations through your university’s disability center. Don’t wait until you’re struggling to reach out. See if you can get an appointment early in the semester to see what support services are available.

“Reach out to your disability resources on campus! Many times they can help you receive academic accommodations, get counseling, academic advising/study tutors and help you get set up with a psychiatrist, especially if medication is needed.” — Zainab S.

“Most colleges have a disability office. I get accommodations because of my borderline. I get extended time on assignments, breaks in class, bi-weekly meetings with my instructors, private reduced distraction testing room, etc. I never thought I’d get an approved accommodation but if you have a legit issue and it effects your school stuff, they have to honor it and help keep you on an even playing field with the other students.” — Nicole P.

Other ideas from our community for in-class survival:

“If you have big lecture classes get there early enough (if you can) and find a seat on the edge. That way if you need a moment to breath you can step out [without] disturbing anyone and no one will even notice what you’re doing. — Meg W.

“Have a notepad for just doodling and writing whatever comes to mind. Colored pencils make it more enjoyable. Do things your way and let people know. It helps a lot. Professors are pretty understanding if you talk to them!” — Alexandria V.

“Do not be afraid to email your professors that you need a mental health day. I felt like I was being silly to say I wasn’t coming to class because I was too depressed and anxious to get out of bed. But once I sat down and talked to them about it they were very understanding about it. The worst that can happen is they react in a rude way, but those good ones who are understanding are the best.” — Jordan L.

“Make at least one friend in each class. This way the two of you can share notes if things are missed, study together for exams and even just discuss class and the notes.” — Danica F.

“I am a paralegal major and am going to use my degree to help victims of domestic abuse and violence. If need be, I can excuse myself if I feel triggered by a discussion in class. I also have an accommodation that allows me to use a special pen and notebook. The pen has a mic in it that records the lecture, and a camera in it that allows you to touch anywhere in the notes and begin to replay the lecture at the point that you wrote it. The equipment is financial aid approved here so don’t let the price scare you.” — Danica F.

9. If You Need to Drop a Class…

With some exceptions, you largely get to choose your schedule in college. If you find yourself with a course load that’s too heavy, don’t wait until everything falls apart — make an appointment with your advisor or someone who can help you prioritize your classes. It can be temping to overload yourself in the beginning of college, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you have to drop a class. It’s better than setting yourself up for failure.

“Dropping a class or two isn’t the end of the world if it means you’ll do better in the rest of them. Also, pick and choose what homework is most important. Some assignments are not worth stressing over.” — Aaron O.

“Take classes at your own pace. Just cause everyone else seems to be taking full-time classes doesn’t mean you have too. Your mental health comes first. Also take each day one day at a time sometimes even one hour at a time. It’s going to be ok be you can do this! Good luck!” — Tara R.

10. If You Need to Take Some Time Off…

It’s not something you have to think about right now, but if you’re ever in a position where you need to take some time off of school because of your mental health, we want you to know that’s OK. There’s a lot of pressure to be on the same path as everyone else, but everyone’s journey is different — and different is not wrong. You’re not a failure for needing to take a break from school.

“Taking a medical withdrawal doesn’t mean you will never finish college. Take the time to focus on your mental health and come back when you’re feeling better. Taking more than four years to finish a degree is more common than you think.” — Morgan M.

We recommend: Fountain House College Re-entry is a great program that helps students with mental illnesses transition back to school.

11. If You Need to Do School Differently…

There are options if you don’t think a traditional school setting is right for you. Honor your needs and explore them if you begin to struggle.

I earned my bachelor’s at a traditional state school, but am working on my Master’s at an online college. I’m glad for my time at a brick and mortar school, but it’s actually been really helpful to have the flexibility of an online college. It does require a lot of disciple and self-accountability, but it’s also really nice to be able to work on school whenever you feel like it, especially on those ‘I truly cannot make it out bed’ days.” — Kayla S.

“Going straight to college after high school wasn’t the decision for me. I had to drop out because of my symptoms. I’ve worked on my degree for 11 years, part-time while maintaining work. I will graduate in December! Wait until you’re ready to start or go back. Don’t feel pressure by some four-year timeline. It’s OK to go your own path.” — Phoebe G.

“It’s OK to do part-time school. Do what you can handle.” — Brooke A.

12. And Finally, Some Reminders to Hang in Your Dorm Room

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield.” –Brené Brown

“I truly believe that everything that we do and everyone that we meet is put in our path for a purpose. There are no accidents; we’re all teachers – if we’re willing to pay attention to the lessons we learn, trust our positive instincts and not be afraid to take risks or wait for some miracle to come knocking at our door.” — Marla Gibbs

“If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.” — Barak Obama

“You are more than what you do, produce, or achieve. Don’t believe for a second that your output and your income dictate your worth. They don’t.” — Lori Deschene

Anything we missed? Tell us in the comments what you would tell students starting college with a mental illness.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia Ltd

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