I never thought I would make it to college, let alone handle being on my own. Suffering from mental illness for years made college seem like an unattainable dream. When I first got to art school, I experienced an emotional rollercoaster, even though I’d ended high school in a stable place. I was quickly tested in every aspect of my recovery—but I realized that I was finally equipped to deal with it. When I felt like everything was falling apart again, I reminded myself that this was a new chapter of my life, and I had the strength within me to fill its pages.
Going off to college is a big transition for anyone, let alone someone dealing with mental illness. NAMI reports that “almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus” in 2012. In order to change that number and provide some guidance, here are some things to do once you arrive on campus to maintain your recovery:
1. Transfer care from home to college.
If you are currently in therapy, talk with your therapist and your parents about whether you are going to continue therapy at school. If you are, figure out if you can do video call sessions with your current therapist or if you want to find a new one around your school. The counseling center at your school should be able to recommend therapists and/or psychiatrists in the area. If you are on medication, talk about medication management with your psychiatrist. Find a drug store near your school where you can get prescriptions filled or look into a mail service program.
2. Have a relapse prevention plan.
College consists of a bunch of changes happening at once, so you have to be prepared for bumps along the way. You will feel shaky in your recovery sometimes, and that’s OK. It’s important to know where to go and what to do when this happens. Create a relapse prevention plan, either on your own or with your therapist. This involves identifying the warning signs of relapse and what steps to take if they come up. If you feel that your symptoms are acting up again, reach out! Hopefully there won’t be a crisis, but if there is, it’s important to have the campus safety number (or emergency counselor number, if the school offers one) and to know where the closest emergency room is.
3. Use the resources available at your school and find support on campus.
Colleges have disability services available for those with both physical and mental disabilities. Register for these services and request any accommodations you may need, like housing, scheduling, or extra time on tests. Make an appointment with the counseling center and let them know what’s going on. Ask them if there are any anonymous meetings on campus (or close to campus) such as AA or EDA. Having the school know what’s going on with your mental health is the best way to have support and feel comfortable. Also, try to be honest with your roommates and/or friends about any drug or alcohol issues. It’s helpful to have people who know that you need to avoid certain substances and places in order to keep you accountable when you’re struggling.
4. Manage your time.
It can be really hard to stay on a schedule, but the best way to keep your stress level low is to try not to get overwhelmed. Having a balance between your social life and academic responsibilities is hard, but important. Try to create a general schedule to follow so that you don’t get lost when things start to get busy with work. Make sure you set aside some time for yourself!
5. Take care of yourself physically.
When you aren’t feeling well physically, it can also take a toll on your mental health. Exercise releases endorphins and is a great way to clear your head. Look into exercise classes at your school’s gym; yoga and Zumba are great options! Remember to eat a balanced meal; a meal plan can be helpful with this, if you have one. Most importantly, get enough sleep. It is so crucial to our health in every possible way. Sleep is your body’s way of resetting itself. Try to plan your time so that you can be in bed by a decent hour.
6. Get involved at school.
Find clubs, groups, and programs that interest you on campus. If there’s something not being offered at your school, bring it there! Being involved gives you a sense of community, support, and leadership. It can make you feel important and needed on campus, and the structure can help you stay on track. Don’t over exert yourself though; you don’t need to be a part of every club that’s offered in order to be involved. Just one is good enough. A simple way to be involved is to go to some events hosted by your school. A lot of planning goes into them, and they are a great way to meet other students. Maybe think about joining your school’s TWLOHA UChapter—and if they don’t have one, maybe you’re the person to start it! It’s a great way to bring awareness to your school, and it gives you a platform to share your story, as well as support in doing so.
7. Know what is right for you.
College is a huge step. Once you get there, you may realize that you aren’t ready or that your specific school isn’t right for you. Don’t panic. Talk with the school’s counselors, your family, student affairs, teachers, etc. Airing out your issues may be all you need. But if need be, taking time off is also an option. A medical leave of absence for a semester or a year could be just what you need. And remember that college is not for everyone. You have to do what is best for you—both the present and future you.
College is an exciting time, and you shouldn’t feel any less excited because you are worried about your recovery. Whether you’ve come a long way or are just getting started in your recovery, college could be a place where you’ll progress even further. Know that you have a solid foundation and you are able to create another support system in this new place. Starting somewhere new doesn’t mean leaving what you already have. Opportunities are waiting, and they’re yours for the taking.
In addition to this list, there are many websites out there with information specifically about mental and emotional health in college. Transition Year is a great website to prepare yourself (and your parents) for the big move into the college years!