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The Fall 2017 semester is quickly approaching, and let’s face it- it’s nerve-wracking. Whether you’re starting your first semester of college or you’re about to graduate, you might lack confidence in your ability to finish out your term on a high note. College can be stressful for anyone, but when you’re suffering from a mental illness, it brings about even more challenges. There’s dorming! Doctors! Professors who just don’t get it! I’m about to start my senior year of undergrad at the University at Albany, and this will by my sixth year. I get stressed out before every semester, no matter how well my last term went. It’s okay to admit that your excitement is also mixed with anxiety.
In this post, I’ll be offering advice on how to navigate college while also dealing with a mental illness. It will be divided into three sections: the beginning, middle, and end of the upcoming semester. Throughout this post, you’ll find examples that I’ve curated from a variety of college websites. I don’t benefit in any way from sharing these examples, but since I’m all about transparency: I’m a current student at the University at Albany, and a former student at SUNY Oneonta. You’ll also find some links to things that helped me out in college. These are affiliate links, and I do benefit from these (not that last one; that’s my Disclosure Policy). I would never share a link to an item that I didn’t think would benefit my readers.
I hope you find this guide helpful!
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1. Solidify your housing plans.
Your plan for navigating the start of the semester will look different depending on whether you’re dorming, living off-campus, or commuting. Housing can easily become the most stressful part of college life, but there are ways to alleviate that stress. If your living situation isn’t changing due to college, feel free to skip this part of the post. If you’re moving into a dorm or apartment, make sure you’ve covered the important stuff:
- Who are your roommates? Introduce yourself if you haven’t already. Discuss who’s bringing things that’ll be shared (microwave, etc), what will be shared, and comfort levels with guests. Also, make sure you go over sleeping habits to ensure that no one will be disturbing one another. Find out if there are any food allergies you (or they) need to be aware of.
- If you’re living in an apartment, make sure your utility setup is scheduled a week before you move in. Otherwise, you might not have electricity for a few days. (If utilities are covered by your landlord, don’t worry about this).
- Discuss security with your roommates. Make sure your doors and windows lock properly. If they don’t, request the proper repairs. Lock up your valuables. Keep your money and important documents somewhere safe. When I moved into my first dorm, my dad got me a laptop lock. It locks your laptop to your desk. That means if someone wants to steal my laptop, they have to steal the whole desk, too! Click here for the laptop lock that my dad bought me (this is an affiliate link, but I wouldn’t recommend something that I didn’t truly like!)
- When should you start packing? If you ask me, you should start 2 weeks early. During the first week, pack everything except for your essentials. During the second week, pack your clothes, toiletries, electronics, chargers, and anything else that you need until your last few days at home.
2. Identify important campus and community resources.
Colleges are only as successful as their students, which is why most colleges have resources to help their students succeed. Some people even choose colleges based on their resources! Identify the people and offices that you might need to utilize throughout your semester. Build a relationship with these people as early as you can- that way, they’ll be more equipped to help you when you need them the most.
- If your campus has a student disability office, they will likely be your biggest advocate when it comes to getting the help you need. Mental illnesses are usually considered a disability at universities. They can approve a list of accommodations that you’re entitled to in your classes. I receive extra time on tests, and I’m allowed to take my tests in a separate location. SUNY New Paltz has an accommodation program that’s similar to what I have now. See them as early as possible- preferably, before the first week of classes is over. The most important thing to remember about disability accommodations is that you are your own advocate. This means that you need to seek out the accommodations, inform your professors of your accommodations, and address any issues you may have.
- Many colleges have a counseling center. Most of the time, they’re designed for one-time situations such as breakups, deaths, and other events. However, some also offer group therapy. At my old school, I was in a therapy group for women with anxiety. Stop by the counseling center during your first week and learn more about what they have to offer. Here are some examples from the University at Albany, Rutgers University, and UC Berkeley.
- If you’re like me, you have a mental illness that requires ongoing support. Before you start your semester, check out therapists near your school. Make sure they accept your insurance and are easy to get to. If you’re having trouble finding a therapist, seek a referral from your school’s counseling center.
- Let’s face it- some of your classes are going to be difficult. Your campus has tutoring options available, whether it’s through a peer or the college itself. Some schools even have tutoring centers for specific subjects! If you think a required class will give you issues, look into tutoring early on. Hofstra University, High Point University, and La Salle University offer tutoring programs for some courses.
- Consider doing some research on any of these resources on your campus or in your community: support groups, LGBTQ+ centers, multicultural centers, religious congregations and services, local NAMI chapters, nearby hospitals, specialists for other health conditions, and psychiatrists.
3. Inform your professors of your mental illness.
This might seem like an awkward conversation to have with your professors, but it’s necessary if you anticipate missing classes or needing extensions on assignments. If you have accommodations from your school’s disability center (see where this comes in handy?), inform your professors of those accommodations. Briefly explain how your mental health may affect your ability to be in class or complete assignments in a short amount of time. Even if your accommodations don’t cover you for missed classes or extensions, it’s completely okay to bring up that you might be requesting them! I use the following script:
- Hi! I’m Bri, and I just wanted to introduce myself since I’m excited about taking this class (if you aren’t thrilled about it, say “I’m looking to do well in this class”).
- I’m currently dealing with -insert however you want to word it here-. Basically, -briefly describe the disorder-. For me, this means -examples: struggling to keep up in class, struggling to stay awake/get out of bed, focusing issues, anxiety during tests-. (If you have accommodations, hand them the documentation at this time). Even if a class is generally easy or if it’s in a subject I love, I still struggle with it.
- I’m hoping that this class won’t give me too much trouble, but I wanted to give you a heads-up that I may wind up asking for -examples: extended time on tests, leniency with absences, deadline extensions- from time to time.
Observe your professors’ responses upon giving them this information. An understanding instructor will respond by asking how they can help, or by telling you that if there is ever an issue, they’re available to help you out. I’ve informed every professor I’ve ever had of my mental health situation within the first week of classes. In my experience, half of my professors have give me a supportive response. Some of your professors will simply say, “thank you for letting me know.” This is not necessarily a bad response. Many people approach professors to inform them of their unique needs, so they’re probably just used to it by now. It’s helpful for an instructor to know why a student might be struggling, so even though this response seems uncaring, you can still approach them if you need their assistance. Sometimes, my instructors would respond by dismissing the idea of me struggling completely. Watch our for a professor who says, “Don’t worry about this class. You won’t be struggling in this class,” or “This class won’t be stressful.” They may think they’re trying to calm you down, but it’s also an indicator of how seriously they take your concerns. If you like or need the class, stick it out- you might even find that the professor is willing to help you. If the class was already giving you a bad vibe, and you don’t need it, consider switching it with something else.
You might be wondering why you need to tell your instructors about your health in the very beginning. It’s not always a comfortable conversation, and you hardly know your instructors. Being upfront from the start shows your instructors that you’re proactive about doing what it takes to succeed, but it also makes you more believable. Professors tend to assume that students are lying when grandparents pass away the day before big exams. They’re just as suspicious when a student “suddenly” has a chronic health issue that they “just forgot to mention.” As much as it sucks, some students will make up situations to get sympathy from instructors. By telling your instructors upfront about your condition, before any deadlines approach, you’ll appear far more trustworthy.
1. Sit in the front of the classroom.
When you sit in the front of a classroom, your professor will become familiar with you. This is especially important when you’re in a lecture hall with hundreds of other students. It’s important to show that you’re making an effort, especially if you’re struggling in a class.
2. Keep your instructors updated.
You told your instructors about your struggles in the beginning of the semester, but it’s important to keep them updated when things come up. Does this mean you need to inform them of every little thing? Not all all, nor should you. However, if you missed class because you couldn’t get out of bed, tell your instructor that the symptoms of your mental illness kept you away from class that day. Not only is this the truth, but your professors will appreciate the fact that you cared enough to inform them. If you need an extension on a project, don’t hesitate to request it. The same goes for any other accommodations you may need. Remember that if you told your professors about your condition in the beginning of the semester, they already know that you may ask for help.
3. Hide your medication.
This one is important. As you become more comfortable with your friends, you might decide to open up about your mental health. Opening up can lead to your friends becoming more understanding, and it widens your support network. While this is great, it also means that your friends might learn about the medications that you take. There’s no shame in taking medication at all! Your friends might believe this so much that they’ll want to buy or “borrow” it from you. Many students are taking Adderall that is not prescribed to them because they believe it’s a good study aid. In addition, instances of Xanax abuse among college students has increased by a whopping 450% between 1993 and 2005. In order to keep yourself and your friends safe, keep your medication in a place that only you know about. You were prescribed the medication because you need it.
If your friends are struggling with a prescription drug addiction, you can tell them about this hotline that can refer them to a treatment provider.
1. Take breaks in between studying for finals.
Finals are stressful for everyone. Make sure you’re taking breaks while you’re studying to prevent a burnout. Some colleges have programs during finals week that are designed to relax students.
2. Book your testing accommodations early.
If you receive extended time on exams, make sure you request accommodations for your finals ASAP! Many students who receive testing accommodations will also be trying to use the college’s facilities, and they don’t always have room for everyone. Be one of the first people to make an accommodation request to ensure that you’ll actually have them for finals week.
3. Going home for break? Have your meds transferred back home.
If you take medication, you’ve probably been picking them up at a pharmacy near your school. If you’re not going to be near your school during winter (or summer) break, let your pharmacy know in order to have your medication transferred to a pharmacy closer to home. If they wind up at the pharmacy near your school while you’re away, don’t worry- most pharmacies are willing to do what it takes to ensure that you get your medication.
This guide will likely be updated before the start of the semester. I hope you find this helpful!
Have a great semester!