Enrolling in college as a student with a mental health disorder 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.
A 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 disorders that colleges should be prepared to accommodate.
Common mental health disorders 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 disorders, 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 disorders. For example, some students may suffer from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
How Colleges Accommodate Students With Mental Health Disorders
Colleges can make accommodations for students dealing with a mental health disorder, 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 disorders:
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.
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 some common accommodations colleges may be willing to provide to students with mental health disorders:
- 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.
Advice From an Expert
Dr. Andrea Slaughter
What things should a student with a mental health disorder consider when selecting a college?
Preparation is key, so it’s really important for students with a preexisting condition to have a plan for how to manage any potential mental health crises. It also helps minimize the potential consequences associated with recovery (missed assignments, lost time, poor performance on projects and tests, etc.) Things to consider: Is there a counseling and testing center on the campus? What other wellness services and resources are available through the school?
What would you tell a student with a mental health disorder that believes college is unattainable?
If a student believes college is unattainable because they’re trying to match an image or standard of how they believe college should be, I’d tell them to throw that image out the window. There are many options for how to obtain a college degree now that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Students with mental health disorders can take lighter course loads (six hours versus 15 hours per semester), do exclusively online or hybrid classes, and/or operate with reasonable accommodations to get coursework completed, among others.
Is it important for students to disclose mental health disorders?
A student’s mental health is their private health information. They hold the power regarding whether or not to disclose and to who. Students should know their rights and become well-educated on their school’s policies regarding accommodations, including if it’s required for a student to disclose a mental health diagnosis in order to receive academic accommodations. Also, only disclose a mental health diagnosis to “need-to-know” parties.
Should students with mental health disorders use campus resources?
Only if they feel comfortable doing so. On-campus resources are typically free and convenient, and include access to licensed therapists, counselors, or psychologists trained to specifically address college-aged issues. Some campuses also offer group therapy and support groups for added benefit. College students who do not want to use their school counseling services can seek services through a provider of their choice, particularly if they have commercial insurance coverage. If finances are an issue, there are a number of nonprofit and/or mental health clinics where therapy sessions are offered at a sliding scale of rates.
What tips would you give a student with a mental health disorder for succeeding in college?
- Add structure to your routine.
- Set boundaries for yourself and others — it’s okay to say no.
- Know where to access resources.
- Don’t isolate yourself.
- Ask for help — often.
Know Your Rights
A student who is properly informed of their legal rights can tailor their postsecondary schooling for the best experience possible. Colleges must accommodate students with mental health disorders. Whether it’s enrollment decisions or academic accommodations, colleges and universities cannot prevent or limit a student’s ability to attend class based on their psychiatric disorder. Certain laws help prevent discrimination and protect college students’ rights.
According to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, discrimination of the basis of disability is prohibited. Additionally, students’ educational records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), including disability status and request for accommodations. This federal law protects students regarding the release of records to third parties. Students have the right to access their records, demand disclosure with consent only, amend records, and file complaints against schools for violating FERPA.
Assistive Apps for Students With Mental Health Disorders
In addition to receiving help from their college or university, many students look to assistive apps to cope with their mental health disorder. Assistive apps are an empowering way for people to improve their daily lives with the help of technology. In the list below, we’ve highlighted some of the best assistive apps for common mental health disorders.
The following assistive apps are not replacements for professional mental health advice. Please consult a medical provider before making any health-related decisions.
|Calm||Calm focuses on relaxation, meditation, and sleep. Their library includes a number of sleep stories, sleep music, lessons and masterclasses in meditation, as well as soothing nature sounds.||Download: Android | iOS|
|DARE||Created as a companion to the book by the same name, DARE is an evidence-based app that aims to help people overcome panic attacks, worry, insomnia, and anxiety.||Download: Android | iOS|
|Sanvello||Based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Sanvello helps you find relief from anxiety, depression, and similar mental health concerns. Daily mood tracking gives insight on how to assess your moods, track health activities, and identify patterns.||Download: Android | iOS|
|Youper||Youper was founded by doctors and therapists. You begin with a free mental health assessment. Once completed, you’re able to speak with a psychiatric provider through a video call to evaluate your needs and the best course of action.||Download: Android | iOS|
Substance abuse apps
|I Am Sober||The sobriety tracker app I Am Sober allows you to track your sober days, build new habits, and provide ongoing motivation through a wide network of people who are working one day at a time toward staying sober.||Download: Android | iOS|
|SoberTool||SoberTool rewards you for the time you’ve remained clean. The app offers quick daily notifications filled with motivational messages and reminders. Use their search engine to type in how you feel and receive suggestions to help you work through those feelings.||Download: Android | iOS|
Eating disorder apps
|Recovery Record||Recovery Record is designed for those recovering from eating disorders which include bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, ARFID, and anorexia nervosa. The app is available for self-help use and can also be linked up with a treatment team through the companion clinician app.||Download: Android | iOS|
|Rise Up + Recover||Rise Up + Recover was created to easily record meals, behaviors, and emotions for people who struggle with food, body image, dieting, and exercise. There is also a focus on relieving depression and anxiety that can accompany eating disorders.||Download: Android | iOS|
Bipolar disorder apps
|eMoods||eMoods helps people track their symptoms relating to bipolar disorders and other mental illnesses. The app identifies patterns and triggers while helping you prevent relapses.||Download: Android | iOS|
|Medisafe||Medisafe aims to take the stress out of managing complex prescriptions. The app sends personalized reminders for each of your medications. It will also warn you of negative drug interactions if you have multiple prescriptions.||Download: Android | iOS|
Autism spectrum disorder apps
|Habitica||Habitica is a task manager that empowers you to “gamify your life.” The app turns daily tasks and to-dos into quests that level up your Avatar. In-game rewards and “punishments” are used to empower you to achieve your daily goals.||Download: Android | iOS|
|MindMeister||MindMeister will have you generating, organizing, and prioritizing all of your thoughts into one easy-to-see mind map. MindMeister is a great app for those who prefer visualizing their plans, decision-making processes, and creative ideas.||Download: Android | iOS|
Scholarships and Financial Resources for Students With Mental Health Disorders
Many scholarships exist to help students with mental health disorders pay for college. Here are a few to jumpstart your research:
- The Quell Foundation Fighter Scholarship. This merit-based scholarship is awarded to high school seniors, undergraduates, or graduate students who are being treated for or have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. The amounts awarded are undisclosed and may vary.
- Baer Reintegration Scholarship. The Baer scholarship is for prospective students who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or schizoaffective disorder. They must currently be receiving treatment and be actively involved in rehabilitative or reintegration efforts, just to name a few requirements. The goal of this funding is to help those with these disorders acquire educational skills to regain their lives. The amounts awarded are needs-based and can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
- Prochnow Foundation Scholarship. Prochnow Foundation’s annual $1,000 scholarship was created to reward a high-achieving student who has been diagnosed with mental illness. This scholarship can be applied to a four-year college or full-length trade school. Their aim is to reduce the financial burden of high-achievers in their pursuit of education and personal development.
- JC Runyon Foundation Scholarship. This scholarship is for students who have successfully completed an inpatient program within a facility, unit, or wing that is dedicated to behavioral health treatment for a mental health disorder. The student will need to have been accepted into a college, university, trade school, or undergraduate program. JC Runyon Foundation created this funding for overcomers who are ready to live the next chapter of their lives. The amounts awarded are undisclosed.
- Google Lime Scholarship. Google aims to help and inspire students by breaking down the barriers preventing them from entering computing and technology fields. This scholarship is for students who consider themselves to have an invisible or visible disability. Scholarships for students studying in the U.S. are $10,000 and are awarded based on the candidates’ academic background and demonstrated passion for computer science.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the following organizations can also provide assistance to students dealing with mental health disorders:
The Jed Foundation. The Jed Foundation is a non-profit organization protecting emotional health and preventing suicides for teens and young adults within the U.S. Their online resource center is a great place to start taking care of your mental health. You’ll find quizzes, tips, and support on their website.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). NIMH is a leader within the field of mental disorder research. Their website is full of valuable information on various mental illnesses including what they look like, what risks they may pose, and how to go about treating them.
MentalHealth.gov. This website is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They provide a list of toll-free hotlines for anyone needing immediate help and services in the area of mental health.
National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery (NCMHR). Led by mental health consumers and/or survivors, NCMHR is leading the transformation of the field through their vision of self-directed recovery. This website is a place to find support within a community and to improve the state of healthcare for those who are or have been affected by mental health issues.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The SAMHSA website is a place to find treatment in your area. You can find help for substance abuse, mental health disorders, or a combination of both within the vast library of providers they have compiled. They offer a wealth of educational material on these challenging subjects.