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5 Tips for Navigating Academia as an Adult with Mental Illness

Higher education has thus far been the greatest accomplishment of my life. I have gained a sense of purpose and I have learned to value education in a way that my younger self would never have dreamed of doing. I have met extraordinary people with even more extraordinary dreams. For me, college has been an overall positive experience but that was not always the case. In the beginning of my college journey, I had undiagnosed schizoaffective disorder which caused me to struggle daily not only with learning, but with just navigating interactions with my professors and peers. I knew I needed support but I did not know what to ask for or who to ask for that support.

I’ll tell you that earning a degree is challenging, it tests your intellectual ability, it’s expensive and it will try your mental stability on a daily basis. For adults with mental illness, all of these things can make education that much more difficult. However, there are options for supported learning for adults with mental illness either entering college for the first time or returning.

Here are five tips I discovered through my journey that may help you!

1. Determine whether in-person or online classes will work best for you.

Most colleges are now offering both online and in-person options. Personally, dealing with paranoia made it difficult to go to a physical classroom and sit with people all around me. Through both my M.Ed and B.S., I have participated in fully online programs. My performance and attitude towards learning increased drastically.

You can check out my article, “3 Ways Online Classes Can be Helpful for Students With Mental Illness,” for more information on online classes for people with mental illness.

If you are someone who finds it hard to get up and make it to a class, or if you are someone who would rather do their studying in the late hours of the night, an online program may be for you. If you struggle with isolation and would like to be more involved with your peers or if you are someone who learns best face-to-face, in-person learning may really benefit you.

2. Only take as many classes as you feel you can handle.

College is not a race and I promise you that no one that matters cares if it takes you a little bit longer to graduate. Take into account anything else you have going on in your life before registering for classes each semester. Ask yourself how you’ve been feeling. Ask yourself if you have any events coming up during that time period that might need a bit more of your attention.

The great part of college is that there are drop periods that allow you to stay in a class for a specified amount of time before dropping it will affect your transcript. It’s OK to say a week or two in that, “This is too much.”

Drop the class — it is not worth your mental stability.

3. Use your university’s disability services.

Every college is required to have a disabilities services office or some type of system set up to support students that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act. These services are in charge of making sure that disabled students have equal and accessible access to education. Go to them and ask them what steps you need to complete in order to gain accommodations. Accommodations can look something like additional testing time, not having to present in front of peers, and being given extra support or time on specific assignments.

These services usually require some form of documentation from your health care provider defining how your disability interferes with your learning experience and recommendations for what accommodations might best suit you.

If this sounds overwhelming, in my experience, I have always just given my professors a heads-up (even while being provided disability services) on my diagnosis and what that means for my learning in their class. I personally do not need everyday accommodations but ask that they work with me on timing in case of rough days or hospitalizations. I also ask that instructors give me a heads-up if any of the content discusses contamination or poisoning as those are two things that I become very triggered by. Figure out what you might need and start there. You can always adjust your accommodations in the future.

4. Organize your schedule.

When you receive your syllabus for each class, write out every assignment and when it is due. This will put into perspective how much time you really need to dedicate to your studies. I always plan to do my assignments on specific days. Since all of my assignments are usually due by midnight on Sundays, I try to start everything by Wednesday; this way, if something happens, I have extra time to finish anything I may not have finished and submitted.

I go as far as to schedule time during the day that I will work on specific assignments. Not everyone is “type A” like myself, so, if this is the case, I encourage you to just not procrastinate. Do a little bit each day. I promise that not cramming and not waiting until the last minute is going to relieve the stress of trying to complete your work for the week.

5. Prioritize your mental (and physical) well-being over your classwork.

Do not fall victim to the mentality that you have to be a straight-A student to get anywhere in life. Missing one assignment is not the end of the world and is not a reflection of your intellectual ability. As an adult with mental illness, sometimes you are going to struggle with things that are unrelated to school that will affect your performance.

If your insomnia is kicking your butt and you finally feel tired enough to sleep but you happen to have an assignment due soon — choose sleep. If your depression is standing on your chest and you need to make an extra appointment with your therapist but you haven’t studied for your quiz, schedule that appointment. What I would suggest though, is making sure that if you need to skip an assignment or two, choose assignments that have the least amount of graded points.

As a current educator who lives with a psychotic disorder, I know that good professors will work with you to make sure that you have a positive experience in their class. I also know that there are so many things that we don’t know when trying to navigate academia as adults and most of us are just doing the best we can. If you are an adult with mental illness who is thinking about attending college or if you are already there and struggling, I’ve been there and recognize that this is not a unique experience. Through my best efforts and the collaboration of my universities, I have found success in education.

Photo by Bethany Laird on Unsplash

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