Planning for Mental Health Challenges on Campus
By Kelly Burch
College is full of new experiences, from living with new people to creating a budget. Some of these experiences could get in the way of managing your mental health and well-being. Talking about challenges with your providers ahead of time and making a plan to manage them can help you stay healthy on campus.
Be Honest with Yourself and Your Care Team
Thinking about the challenges that you might encounter on campus might make you worry. But thinking these situations through will help you be better equipped to handle them. You can do this on your own or with a trusted adult such as your guardian or health care provider. Spend some time considering these common concerns:
- How might alcohol and drugs affect your medications and your mental health? And how will you say no to your peers if you choose to abstain from drinking or other substances?
- How would not getting enough sleep affect you and your mental health?
- What will you tell new friends or your roommate about your mental health condition? Think ahead about how you want to tell your mental health story.
- How involved do you want your parents and caregivers in your health care? Now that you’re an adult, more separation and independence is healthy, but your caregivers can also be a source of critical support in some cases.
- How will you cope with feelings of stigma if they arise? Feeling shame about a mental health diagnosis or telling new people about your challenges can make it more difficult to get treatment or ask for help when you need it.
- How will you handle a desire to shed your old identity and start fresh on campus? College is an opportunity to make changes or start new, but you can still hang on to the most important things, like your values and the routines that help you manage your mental health.
- Will you be lured into a false sense of stability during the easier times of the academic year? It might be tempting to stop treatment when you feel you’re doing well, but always talk with your treatment team before making changes. Often when you’re feeling good, it’s a sign that treatment is working for you!
- How will you distinguish college adjustment issues from more serious mental health problems or setbacks?
Connect with On-Campus Care
Even if you’re working with your treatment team from home, it’s a great idea to learn about the on-campus mental health or counseling center if your school has one. This is a resource that’s easily available right where you’re doing your day-to-day activities. Once you’re familiar with the counseling center, help is only a phone call or walk-in appointment away if you need it.
Some schools, especially smaller tech schools or community colleges, don’t have a counseling center. That’s OK! In that case, you can continue with your current providers if they’re local or offer telehealth appointments. Or you can connect with a local community mental health center that offers counseling services. Even if your school doesn’t have a mental health center, the student life office might have recommendations for community mental health partners that you can see.
3 Questions to Ask Before Starting New Treatment
When you connect with an on-campus or community counseling center, ask them:
- What’s the process for booking appointments?
- How much will counseling sessions cost? Sometimes, students have access to a set number of free sessions. In other cases, your medical insurance might cover counseling. Sometimes, you’ll have to pay.
- Are there community resources that could support you? Your school’s mental health center might offer or know about support groups, mindfulness groups, and other on-campus or community resources that can help support your mental health.
When you book sessions with the counseling center, you’ll be asked to fill out a health history. It’s important to be as honest as possible when filling out these forms. Your providers are better able to help you if they have the full picture of your mental health.
Know Your Emergency Contacts
It’s hard to find reliable information in an emergency, or when you’re struggling. So, compile important numbers and websites ahead of time. Add them to your phone contacts and also write them down on a piece of paper that you keep somewhere easy to find–like on the side of your mini-fridge. Include phone numbers for:
- Emergency support. Include on-campus numbers, the Crisis Text Line (by chat or by texting 741741) and the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
- Campus mental health services. Look for information on your school’s website.
- Your therapist. Make sure to include an after-hours or emergency number if they have one.
- Your prescriber. They may be your primary care provider or a psychiatrist.
- Your support person(s). This might be a trusted friend, your guardian, or someone else that you know you can count on, like an adviser, dean, or RA.
If you’re comfortable, share these numbers with your roommate or a trusted friend so they can help you, if needed.
The transition to college is a huge life change for most people. The same is true for young people who have had a mental health challenge during high school. Planning ahead can’t guarantee that you won’t face new challenges or changes in how you feel while on campus. But it does increase your odds of staying healthy and builds a mental health safety net for you to fall back on if you need it.