Welcome Anywhere: Finding A Mental Health Friendly College Campus

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the symptoms of most chronic mental health issues and mental illnesses, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression, first emerge in most individuals between the ages of 16 and 24.

It is not a coincidence that symptoms arise during the adolescent years; experts concur that mental illness is triggered by a combination of developmental, environmental, and genetic factors.

If you are a parent of a high school student who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, or are a high school student dealing with this challenge, know that you are not alone: in fact, the past decade has seen more students entering freshman year with pre-existing diagnoses of mental illnesses than ever before.

But not all colleges are equally well-equipped to handle students who are dealing with these difficulties.

A student with a mental illness must take additional steps to find a mental health-friendly college campus, and must plan ahead to locate on-campus support and structure.

Questions to Ask While Researching Colleges

How Capable is the College Counseling Center (CCC)?

Most colleges and universities have a CCC, but that’s where the similarities end. Some CCCs are well-funded, fully-staffed, and student-friendly. Others, even some of those on the campuses of elite “name brand” universities, are not. Just because a university is highly selective or has outstanding academics, does not mean that it gives equal priority to the mental health of its students.

You will need to investigate a college’s mental health resources by digging deeply into the school’s website, and/or visiting the CCC in person during a college tour. It is important to get answers to the following questions:

  • Staffing: How is the CCC staffed? Are psychiatrists (needed for medication management) easily available? How many therapists are on staff? Are they psychologists and/or social workers, or are they graduate students?
  • Scheduling: Does the CCC have long wait times? It’s hard to believe, but even at the most elite universities in the U.S. there may be significant wait times to get an initial intake appointment with a therapist. If your child is struggling with an episode of depression, only to be told it will be two weeks before he or she can be seen for the first time, those symptoms might worsen.
  • Hours: Does the CCC have limited hours? How are after-hours emergencies handled — through trained campus police, or through a referral to a local hospital? And, if applicable, how qualified is that hospital at dealing with psychiatric emergencies?
  • Limits: Are there limits to the number of therapy sessions a student may have? Most colleges are not set up for and do not encourage on-campus, long-term therapy. If you or your child will require ongoing therapy, the college may refer the student to a local therapist or psychiatrist. But what if the college’s surrounding community is rural, with more cows than people? Even if the university is in a large town, or in the middle of a city, the student will have to find a provider who takes his or her insurance, and will also need to arrange transportation to get to the appointment.

How Strong is a College’s Center for Disability Services?

Here is where an in-person visit will be valuable, and advance planning will be mandatory.

All universities and colleges must offer accommodations for students with documented physical or mental impairments — it is a federal law. And yes, students living with a mental illness can — and should, as needed — request accommodations that allow them to fully participate in their education. But the strength of a college’s Center for Disability Services will vary from school to school. And many college offices are much more accustomed to handling requests related to physical needs (such as those that relate to wheelchair accessibility) or typical learning issues (e.g., dyslexia).

Although federal regulations (the ones put into place to implement a federal law) do classify many mental illnesses — such as anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder — as disabilities for which accommodations can be obtained, a campus Center for Disability Services may not be as familiar with them. So students really need to be their own strongest advocates. Parents should know that in college (after age 18), it is up to the student (not the student’s parents) to self-advocate and request accommodations as needed. For students with a mental illness, accessing appropriate accommodations can make a huge difference for staying in school, reaching academic success, and graduating on time.

Oftentimes, however, college students with mental health challenges don’t seek out accommodations from their school. Why is that? Are they afraid of a stigma? Unaware of their legal rights? Is it too burdensome a process? Is the Center for Disability Services unfriendly to students with mental illness?

Know that, if needed, students can ask a college for mental health-related accommodations. These include:

  • Excused absences for mental health treatment
  • Course withdrawals without penalty
  • Adjustment in test settings
  • Extensions on homework and exam deadlines

How Mental Health-Friendly Are Campus Activities?

You will need to dig beneath the surface of a school’s website to answer this question, or ask an expert for assistance. But there are signs that will tell you if a campus is mental health-friendly — or not.

Look for a college that has a strong new student orientation program, an ongoing mentoring program (beyond academic advising), as well as staff, administration, professors, and resident advisors who are trained in mental health and wellness.

Another indicator that a campus values the mental health of its students is the presence of active student-led chapters of mental health advocacy, awareness, and support groups such as NAMI on Campus or Active Minds, and/or that the college itself has been certified as mental health compliant by the Jed Foundation.

Dig even more deeply to see if the university has a library that is open 24/7, with students sleeping in carrels (no comment) — or if the university places equal weight on academics and wellness — e.g. has programs on stress management, healthy relationships, and substance abuse, and/or has a college fitness center that offers yoga, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.

Finding and going to a college that supports the mental health of its students as much as it promotes the academic rigor of its curriculum is important for everyone, but particularly so for students entering school with a pre-existing mental health concern.

Planning Tips For A Mental Health Friendly College Experience

To sum up, here are some tips for ensuring that you find and utilize excellent on-campus mental health resources.

  • Visit the Center for Disability Services while on a campus tour with parents, or at a later date in the research process.
  • Make an appointment with the Center for Disability Services office before the semester starts. Leave plenty of time for this process; many Centers for Disability Services are small and understaffed, and can get overwhelmed in late summer and early fall. And since documentation (such as a letter from your at-home psychiatrist or educational consultant) is needed, the more time you have to prepare, the better.
  • If you will need ongoing therapy, find a provider and set up recurring appointments before the school year begins. The same goes for medication management if it can’t be done on campus.
  • It might be preferable, and even necessary, for some students to look off-campus for additional mental health treatment, medication, and therapy.

Final Thoughts

Let me end this article by pointing out the obvious: you will not see a banner heading on a college or university’s website stating: “Students with Mental Illness Welcome Here!”

But you are welcome everywhere.

It is up to you — the parent or the student living with a mental health challenge — to do your research. Find a college or university that will provide you with both academic challenge and the mental health support you need, and create a sustainable plan to stay as stable and healthy as possible.