Mental Health and Higher Education

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The transition from high school to college or university settings is an exciting, overwhelming, and anxiety provoking rite of passage.  For some, pre-existing mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD travel to college with a person, along with established treatments and supports.  For others, the new setting and unfamiliar environment may exacerbate underlying symptoms, or may expose mental health struggles around motivation, work completion, socialization, self-care and eating, and other expectations of independence.  Experiencing mental health difficulties does not preclude an individual from a higher education experience, but understanding the types of support, and ways to receive the support, are critical for long term success.

Understanding ones’ rights is an important foundational base for understanding the types of supports you may expect and may be offered.  Equal opportunities and equal treatment is expected for students with or without disabilities.  While many supports and services were covered under special education law in high school, colleges are required to abide by the American’s with Disability Act (ADA).  It is a misconception that services will travel with a student from high school to college – it is the responsibility of the student to present their needs to the college campus disability services.  It is not permitted for a school or university to charge the student for any accommodations.  For example, if an accommodation needed is a note-writer, who will be paid on an hourly basis, it is the school’s disability services who will pay the hourly rate, and not the student.

Schools will likely not take your word for it, in terms of needs and accommodations.  You will likely need to provide recent documentation outlining the disability, as well as what reasonable accommodations are being requested.  This documentation may be the most recent evaluation and IEP from a school district, or a psychological evaluation from a psychologist or neuropsychologist. The rule of thumb when requesting accommodations is to ask for what you need far before you will need it.  It will not help to ask for extra time on tests after midterms or final exams have passed; these supports need to be in place from day 1.

Understanding the types of supports and resources a college campus offers, as well as external factors are important as well.  When deciding on a higher education placement, location and distance from established providers may be a consideration.  It may also be a consideration of how far away a person is from friends and family, if increased needs present themselves.  For those who experience seasonal affective depression, choosing a college campus that infrequently sees sun and warm weather may not be good for ones’ mental health.

Proactive understanding is critical as well.  Many psychological conditions manifest in adolescence and young adulthood – and college students are at increased risk for substance use and alcohol abuse.  These risk factors contribute to suicide being the second highest leading cause of death for college students.  Helping college students feel empowered to seek help – and to be proactive about communicating risk factors, concerns, and mental health overall – can be an enormous help with this problem.

Mental health conditions and disabilities should not be barriers to higher education.  With self-advocacy, self-understanding, and campus supports, those who experience mental health difficulties can thrive in a college environment.

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