Taking a Mental Health Gap Year Before College

By Kelly Burch

A lot of people assume the next step after high school is college, and that timing works for many. For others, however, including some people living with mental health conditions, it makes sense to delay the start of college even if they know they want to pursue a degree. A mental health gap year can give you time to learn about managing your mental health diagnosis, stabilize your symptoms, and set yourself up for success on campus.

There’s a lot of pressure to do things in a certain order, but the only right timeline is the one that works for you. People ages 18 to 25—the age most students are during college—are at the highest risk for mental illness, and many people first experience symptoms during this time. That can make the transition to college really difficult. 

A mental health gap year may be the right decision for you if:

  • You have a new diagnosis or your mental health isn’t currently well managed. 
  • You’re recovering from a crisis.
  • Your mental health symptoms are severe enough that they’ll interfere with your ability to keep up in class or connect to your peers.
  • You have a plan for improving your mental health before getting into the classroom.

Your care team, parents, teachers, and other trusted adults can help you decide if a gap year is right for you. It’s ultimately your decision, but it’s not one you have to make alone.

Your Mental Health Is Your Priority

College can play a major role in setting you up for success as an adult, but making sure you are healthy is even more important and will enable you to make the most of college when you are ready to go. Taking time off to learn about your condition, get the best treatment, build the skills to manage it, or get through a crisis period is a responsible decision. Making hard—but right for you—decisions is part of maturing, and it increases the likelihood that you will have a positive and successful college experience. Talk to your doctors, parents, or other trusted adults about your concerns. Take their opinions into account, but remember that only you can ultimately make the decision.

Delaying College Can Help You Succeed in the Classroom

Students who have taken time off tend to have higher grades than students who haven’t. Taking time off can give you the experience and confidence you need to manage class assignments and your mental health. That’s key for people living with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, since they are more likely to have lower grades or drop out of school. That can be discouraging—not to mention expensive—since you’ll need to pay for classes even if you don’t pass. If your mental health condition is well managed, you are likely to feel more confident and focused at school.

Have a Plan for Improving Your Mental Health

If you take a gap year or leave of absence, it’s important that you take that time to focus on your mental health. When you’re ready, you can begin to create your plan for getting back into the classroom. Your mental health plan can include things like:

  • Working closely with a mental health support provider
  • Completing an intensive outpatient (or residential) treatment program
  • Implementing mindfulness or movement into your days
  • Trying a new medication or treatment

Boston University has an excellent manual that can help you make a plan for how to improve your mental health during your time off. The manual is written for students who are taking a leave of absence, but it’s also helpful for high school students who are thinking about delaying the start of college. 

Decide How You’ll Frame Your Story

Lots of people will likely ask about your plans after high school. This is your story, and you get to be the author. Here are some options:

  • Tell people you’re taking a gap year. The idea of a year off between high school and college is becoming more widely accepted, so it may keep questions at bay. 
  • Say you’re taking time off to work on personal goals. That’s true! And strong mental health is the most important goal to work toward.
  • Tell them you’re exploring your options. This is a great choice if you’re not sure whether college is right for you. 
  • Say you’re focusing on your mental health—because you are.

It’s OK to frame your story differently for different people in your life. Your explanation to your doctors and parents may be different than the one you give your close friends, which may be different from the one you give classmates or your mom’s friend you run into at the coffee shop. You can see more examples of how to talk about your time off on page 35 of this workbook. It’s written for people taking a leave of absence, but the messages can easily be adapted.

Taking a gap year to focus on your mental health is a responsible, if difficult, decision, and it’s something you can be proud of. Treat it as a learning experience and an opportunity to make changes that will help you prioritize your well-being as you enter adulthood.

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