Choosing a College When You Have a Mental Health Condition
By Kelly Burch
Researching a school’s mental health support system may not be as exciting as checking out the student center or seeing what the gym looks like, but it’s just as—if not more—important when you are one of the one in three students heading to school with a diagnosed mental health condition. As you start to think about which college is right for you, consider how your mental health may impact your college experience.
Before You Start Looking
You’ve probably narrowed down schools based on the majors they offer, pricing and financial-aid opportunities, location, student population, and size. Now take some time to talk to your parents or guardians, mental health providers, and other trusted adults about:
- Your ideal college experience. What are your goals, dreams, strengths, and possible vulnerabilities?
- Your coping skills.What tools help you cope with your mental health diagnosis, and how will the college you are looking at support those skills? If meditation is a way you center yourself every day, for example, see if there are on-campus mindfulness offerings. If being in nature helps you manage stress, focus on suburban colleges with green campuses.
- Your diagnosis, and how it impacts your life. What challenges and vulnerabilities might your condition create at college? If you know getting solid sleep is key to managing your mental health, for example, find out if single rooms are available to incoming students, or if the disability office can help you secure one. If you are overwhelmed by high-stress environments, you may want to consider smaller suburban or rural colleges.
- Your level of support. Whom can you count on if you need help? Will family members, providers, and friends be far away when you’re on campus? If visits home will be important for your mental health, have you considered the logistics and cost of travel to make this happen? Are there other supports, such as campus mental health, tutoring, and affinity housing (dorms for specific populations, such as LGBTQIA+ folks or people who share your religion), that could make up for the separation from family, providers, school, friends, tutors, and other supportive agencies?
- Your treatment needs. How often do you need to meet with a therapist, psychiatrist, or prescriber? Do you require a specific type of treatment or therapy? Do you need other kinds of support services, and will those be available at college? (Don’t forget that telehealth is a great option to explore if you can’t find exactly what you need at a college you’re considering.)
- All your options. Brainstorm all the choices available to you, including a gap year, getting a job, community college, a technical school, or four-year degree program. (Learn more about the different types of higher education here.) Don’t discount any just yet. This is a time to keep all options on the table and prioritize your own dreams.
It’s also a good time to:
- Determine if you need to update your psychological or educational testing. Your college may require results from within the past three years if you need accommodations such as more time on tests or the ability to take breaks during class. Remember that your high school’s individualized education plan (IEP) will not follow you. It is a student’s responsibility to make arrangements for needed services at college. Getting in touch with the disabilities office is a great place to start.
Deciding Whether a School Is a Good Fit
After you’ve talked about your big-picture hopes and fears, focus on the details. Getting lots of information about a school’s mental health supports can help you decide whether it’s the right place for you.
Most schools have counseling centers, but not all of them do. If you’re going to a technical school or community college, you may not have access to the same mental health services that large colleges and universities have. If you’re considering these schools, ask if they provide any counseling services or have partnerships with community providers that offer discounted rates to students.
You can learn about the services offered, any requirements to use them, and their cost and accessibility in a few ways:
- Visit the college’s website. Search for the student counseling center, mental health services, disability services, psychiatric services, counseling services, and other key words.
- During college tours, pay attention to information provided about mental health and disability services—and ask questions.
- Ask to talk to students who work at the counseling center or in residential life. They can give you a different perspective on how mental health is supported—or not.
- Visit the disabilities office. If you had an IEP in high school, it will not follow you to college. As a college student, disability advocacy will be your responsibility. The good news is that colleges are required to provide accommodations for disabilities. To find out more about what the college can do to support you, your first step is to connect with their disability services coordinator.
Just like looking for classes that fit your major and the extracurricular activities you want, it’s important to find a college that has the right services—or access to them—to meet your mental health needs. Ask these questions:
- Is there a counseling service?
- What types of counseling do they provide, and what types of mental health challenges and diagnoses do they treat?
- Are there medication-management services? How do they work?
- How many counseling visits are allowed per year?
- Is counseling free? If not, how much does it cost? Is financial assistance available?
- Are there connections with mental health providers in the community for referrals if necessary or if the school does not have a counseling center?
- Does the school provide health insurance that provides comprehensive mental health coverage?
- Does the school provide tuition reimbursement insurance, which refunds all or part of the money you’ve spent on tuition if you need to withdraw.
- Are the school’s mental health providers able to coordinate care and treatment with your home providers?
- Are there counselors on campus who share or have expertise in working with your race, identity, background, or lived experience?
As you learn more about what college experience you want, review your plans and discuss them with your care team and family through your junior and senior year.
If there are any changes to your diagnosis, medications, or symptoms, consider how they may impact your college selection. Remember that by planning ahead for managing your mental health during college, you’re helping ensure your success before you even step onto campus.