Going Back to College After a Mental Health Leave of Absence
By Kelly Burch
Returning to college after a mental health leave of absence can feel intimidating. You might feel extra pressure to make up for lost time, or worry about seeing classmates who will ask about your absence. Or you may be overjoyed to reunite with your campus community. Whatever you are feeling, here’s how you can ease your transition back to school.
Fully Accept That Your Experience Is Normal
You’re not alone in taking time off. Nearly 1 in 4 college students takes more than four years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
College isn’t a race—your education should happen at your pace. Part of becoming an adult is learning how to take care of all of yourself, not just the academic part. Sometimes, that means making space to tend to your health. If you see all of your experience as part of your journey to adulthood, then you will learn and grow no matter where you are.
Plan Ahead for How You’ll Talk About Your Time Away
Your mental health is your business. So, it’s up to you what you want to share with classmates and even teachers about your reasons for taking time off. Before you return to class, decide what you’re most comfortable saying and practice your replies. The cues on pages 31 and 32 of this manual from Boston University are great prompts to get you started.
Track Your Readiness
Over your leave of absence, talk with your loved ones and health care provider about how you’ll know that you’re ready to go back to school. For example, sleeping solidly each night is a sign of readiness, whereas experiencing outbursts or mood swings is a sign that you may need more time off. When you feel unsure about whether you can return, look at those readiness signs to boost your confidence.
Consider Registering with the Disability Office
Most colleges have a disability services office or similar department that can help students get the support they need to be successful on campus. You can qualify for accommodations because of a mental health condition. Register with the office and talk with the staff about how they can help you succeed upon your return.
Speak with Your Treatment Team
You’re the expert on your life. And yet, involving others from your treatment team and your parents or guardians—if you have a good relationship—can help you plan the transition. Work with your doctor and therapist to make a plan for maintaining your mental health once you reenroll.
Consider a Lighter Course Load
You might come back feeling fully ready to jump right into your academic and social life. It’s important, though, not to take on more than you can easily handle. Consider whether taking a reduced course load or starting off with part-time study is a good choice for you. That said, taking less than a full-time course load might affect your financial aid or student loan repayments, so be sure to speak with your financial aid office before making a final decision.
Even if you have to take a full-time course load for financial aid reasons, think about how to balance more challenging courses with easier classes or ones that are more conducive to your mental health, like those you’re likely to find engaging, that get you into the outdoors, or that heighten self-regulation skills, like yoga or meditation.
Create a Healthy Living Space
You likely know now a bit about dorm or off-campus living. But as you return to campus, advocate for what you need to make the semester a success. For example, you might feel better living alone, or in a dry dorm where people aren’t using alcohol.
If you have trouble accessing what you need, consider registering with your school’s disabilities office. They’re in charge of making sure you have the accommodations and support you need to succeed in school.
Plan for Success
Knowing that you’ve planned for a successful semester can boost your confidence. Review the checklist on pages 38–40 of this manual. These prompts will have you consider things like whether you’ve purchased your books, planned for where to get prescriptions refilled, and prepared for healthy money management throughout the semester.
Returning to campus is likely to come with many feelings, some of which may be uncomfortable. This is true whether you were gone for a week, a semester, or a year. It’s important and helpful to celebrate yourself. It takes self-knowledge and strength to do what you know is right for you.
You can feel good about prioritizing your well-being and will reenter school with a new sense of self and a revitalized set of goals. The skills you learn in the process of taking care of yourself will serve you the rest of your life.