What's Your Plan? College with a Mental Health Condition
In many ways, college offers a “blank slate” and is the perfect time and place to reinvent yourself. Between the independent living, opportunities to pursue your own interests, new people to meet, and different social scenes to become a part of, it may feel like you can leave your pre-college self behind and start over.
Despite these many ways to reinvent yourself, if you are living with a mental health disorder it’s important to remember that your condition still exists and can’t be ignored or erased as you work on establishing your “new” self.
In addition to opportunities for reinvention and self-discovery, campus life also comes with responsibilities and situations that can be overwhelming at times. Whether you are just starting your college career or returning to campus after being diagnosed, having a plan in place for how to manage your mental health disorder is a key part to setting yourself up for success.
Find out what mental health services your school offers
Research whether or not your school has mental health services available to students. A quick online search for the school’s counseling services or a phone call to the school can answer your questions. For those that do not offer services, ask for local providers to whom they can refer to you. If counseling services are available, important questions to ask include:
- How many individual sessions are available per student and at what cost?
- How long is the typical wait for an individual session?
- Are there emergency or walk-in hours?
- Is there a psychiatrist on campus that students have access to? If not, do they make referrals to psychiatrists in the community?
- Do they offer group therapy on an issue that is relevant to you?
- Do they offer additional services like psychoeducation or stress management events? If so, what topics do they focus on?
Make a mental health plan
Talk with your family and current providers or care team to create a plan you are comfortable with. Figure out the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why.
Decide if you will continue working with current providers in person, via Skype or over the phone. If you plan on finding new individuals to work with, speak with several providers so that you can find the one who best fits your needs. Your school or insurance provider may be able to provide guidance on mental health service providers in the campus area.
Think about what specific tools you will use, like talk therapy or medication. You can also take advantage of technology with options like mood tracking apps, phone alarms, and calendars to keep track of your plan.
Determine how often you will meet with members of your team. This may vary based on services. For example, you may meet with your therapist once or twice a week and your psychiatrist once or twice a month.
Consider transportation – especially if you don’t have access to a car, make sure you’ll be able to get to your appointments using public transportation. What may seem like an easy distance to manage might be much harder when transportation and costs are considered. Additionally, if you take medication, you should find the nearest pharmacy.
Remind yourself of your goals and why it's important for you to maintain your mental health - especially when it seems much easier to give in to unhealthy habits. Write down and carry some of the positive ways you cope with stress, adversity, and symptoms.
More About Meds
- You might be surprised to find out that nearly 33% of college students have taken a prescribed medication for mental health concerns. 
- If you use medications to help manage your mental health disorders, ensure that you have enough of a supply (including refills) to last until you are able to see your doctor again.
- Don’t stop taking your medications suddenly. You may feel like a new person and that you don’t need your medication, but just as medications themselves may have side effects, stopping them suddenly can also have side effects. This is known as discontinuation syndrome. If you would like to try managing your mental health disorder without medication, speak to a psychiatrist about the safest way to stop or other options.
- If you feel like your medication is not working as well as it should be, speak to your doctor to possibly readjust dosage or medication. Do not increase your dose on your own. Some of the most commonly used medications for anxiety and depression, known as SSRIs (including Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, etc.) can cause a potential deadly condition called Serotonin Syndrome. This occurs when levels of serotonin become too high.
- While not common, medications used for other health problems can affect your mental health as well. Check with your prescribing doctor or pharmacist to see if new medications are known to cause psychiatric side effects or interact with medications you already take to control a mental health disorder.
Find out additional services available at your school
Mental health can be influenced by a variety of factors. Find out what your school offers in the following areas:
Many colleges offer disability support services. If you are comfortable disclosing your mental health disorder to the university, you may be given an advisor to provide you with extra support in things like scheduling classes, receiving accommodations as needed, and working with professors. In addition, consider attending the office hours of your professors and workshops on writing or studying.
Nutrition and Exercise
For some, this may be the first time you are responsible for your own meals; cooking may seem intimidating and dining halls can be overwhelming. Many experience changes in appetite or experience weight gain or loss while adjusting to college life. But remember, your focus should be on staying healthy so be sure and try to drink plenty of water, stay active and make smart choices. A healthy body helps fuel a healthy mind.
Because social support is important, you should look into clubs, societies, and activities for students. This is a great time to find others with similar interests and make new friends.
Many universities and colleges have programs or events surrounding health issues like sleep, substance use, safe sex, and other issues students deal with during their time in school. This may provide you with helpful information on caring for all aspects of your well-being.
Don’t deal with your mental health disorder alone.
Keep in touch
Keep in touch with the people that you normally turn to at home even while you’re living on campus. Coordinating time differences and schedules can be tough, so you may want to set up a regular time each week to talk on the phone or video chat. If you’re close enough to visit face-to-face with the people who support you every so often—even better!
Talk to your roommate and/or friends on campus
You may feel vulnerable telling new friends on campus about your mental health disorder, but mental health diagnoses in university communities are quite common. As many as 48% of college students have attended counseling for mental health concerns , so it’s very likely that whoever you either struggles with a mental illness or knows someone who does.
Resident Assistants (RAs) are there to help
Don’t be afraid to approach your dorm’s RA early on to let them know you sometimes struggle and may need them to lend an ear from time to time. Giving them a head’s-up also allows them to learn more about what you are going through and prepares them to be more helpful.
Peer and support groups can be a good resource
For example, Active Minds, is an organization where students across the country with mental health disorders work together to promote mental health awareness on campus. Your campus health or counseling center may organize support groups for students with depression, anxiety or other disorders. You can contact your local Mental Health America affiliate to find out what groups are available in your area, or visit www.mentalhealthamerica.net/find-support-groups for a comprehensive listing of different support groups and websites for locating them. Online support groups can also be extremely helpful, such as Mental Health America’s community on Inspire. https://www.inspire.com.
1. Center for Collegiate and Mental Health. (2015, January). 2014 Annual Report. (Publication No. STA 15-30).