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College Planning Guide for Students with Mental Health Conditions

A Guest Post originally written and posted on intelligent.com

Enrolling in college as a student with a mental health condition doesn’t need to be overwhelming or intimidating. Students who know their rights and learn how to ask for assistance can go on to complete their degree and have a positive educational experience in the process.

To help students find the assistance they need, we created this guide to explain the resources and accommodations most schools provide, and offer tips on how to access these mental health services.

The State of Mental Health on College Campuses

Over the last decade, organizations like the Healthy Minds Network have recorded steady increases in depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation within the college student population. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues.

report issued in June 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that people ages 18 to 24 years old have been affected by mental health issues at a higher rate than adults in older age brackets. As a result, some colleges have struggled to meet this growing demand for student mental health services, which has prompted some demonstrations and backlash on campuses around the country.

But while depression and anxiety seem to have spiked among students, there are other common psychiatric issues that colleges should be prepared to accommodate.

Common mental health conditions among college students

The American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA) provides colleges with the largest comprehensive data set on the health of college students. The survey covers a range of topics and is intended to “assist college health service providers, health educators, counselors, and administrators.”

Their latest assessment from spring 2021 provides a relatively recent look into the overall health and wellness of American college students. The following percentages of respondents reported experiencing problems with these common mental health issues at some point during the previous 12 months:

  • Anxiety. 28.9%
  • Depression. 23.4%
  • Eating Disorders. 5%
  • Bipolar Disorder. 2.2%
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 1.4%
  • Substance Abuse. 1.4%
  • Schizophrenia. 0.3%

It’s worth noting that these numbers were determined by asking survey respondents if they’ve ever been diagnosed with any of these mental health conditions, so it’s likely that these percentages are underestimated. Licensed psychologist Andrea Slaughter points out that substance use among college-aged students is huge — close to 40% — and many students experience overlapping mental health issues. For example, some students may suffer from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

How Colleges Accommodate Students With Mental Health Conditions

Colleges can make accommodations for students dealing with a mental health issue, but it helps to know what you can expect upfront. Students who have received individualized education plans (IEPs) or Section 504 plans during their time in elementary, middle, and/or high school need to know that these plans do not follow them into college. After high school, it becomes the student’s responsibility to inform the college of their disability. Colleges are obligated to work with students who have disabilities and are prohibited from discriminating against them.

Most campuses have health and wellness centers for students as well as their own procedures for requesting accommodations or coursework adjustments. During enrollment, students should inform their college of the specific needs they have in order to get the proper assistance. Also, on-campus counseling centers are often free of charge for enrolled students.

Below you can learn more about the common resources colleges have for students with mental health issues:

Health and wellness centers

Many colleges have their own health and wellness center on campus. These centers typically offer therapy, counseling, support groups, disability advocacy, and mental health education. Students may be able to receive prescriptions and over-the-counter medications there as well. The staff is often composed of psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, nurses, case managers, or peer support providers.

Academic accommodations

The types of accommodations that students may need varies from person to person. While colleges are obligated to accommodate where they can, there are some adjustments that are considered unreasonable. Here are some examples of common accommodations colleges may be willing to provide to students with mental health conditions:

  • A reduced course load
  • Priority class registration
  • Extended assignment deadlines
  • Additional testing time
  • A private room for exams
  • Retroactive withdrawal or a leave of absence
  • Note takers and recording devices for class
  • Individual study skill training
  • Specially trained mentors and tutors

How to request accommodations

Remember — requesting accommodations is the student’s responsibility. Once a student has enrolled at a college, they should begin the process of requesting any necessary adjustments. Each campus has their own forms and protocols for requesting accommodations. They could also require further documentation from a provider. Here’s an example of a typical accommodations request form.

After completing the necessary paperwork, students should check in with their campus’s disability services office to ask questions and ensure they’re ready to start class. Students should follow up each semester or as any new issues arise. Accommodations may be changed and adjusted for students as their needs evolve during their time at the college.

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