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How Students With Mental Illness Can Prepare For College

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This piece comes to us courtesy of U.S. News & World Report, where it was originally published.

College is a major transition for all students, but teens who suffer from mental illness are likely to have more complications with the adjustment.

More than 20 percent of college students reported being diagnosed or treated for a mental illness in 2013, and experts say those numbers will continue to rise.

"Mental illness" refers to a wide range of disorders that impair or alter a person’s thinking, mood or behavior, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Like most diseases, symptoms for mental disorders can range from mild to severe, and treatment options and plans need to be tailored on a case-by-case basis. Though treatable, most mental disorders are chronic and experts warn that a condition that seems managed may flare up again during a student’s transition into college. This is especially true since most signs of mental illness first appear between the ages of 18 and 24.

“When many people move from high school into college they have this fantasy that well, it’s a new chapter of their life, so whatever issues they might have dealt with before they don’t have to think about, and they really don’t make appropriate plans for follow up care,” says Victor Schwartz, medical director at The Jed Foundation, an organization that promotes emotional health and suicide prevention among college students.

Mental health professionals say adequate treatment, communication and proper planning are the keys to success in college. They offer the following steps to help prospective students with a pre-existing disorder excel in school.

[Learn how to be healthy in college.]

1. Know what your student needs: It’s essential for parents and students to self evaluate and make sure they have a solid understanding about the care and treatment a student needs before they research schools, experts say.

Mental health experts encourage students to think of their mental disorders as they would any other chronic disease, such as diabetes, and prepare treatment packages that allow them to live, full and healthy lives.

Students who were treated before college should consult their therapist to devise a treatment plan for their undergrad years. A mental health professional familiar with a student’s case can also advise families on the types of services to look for in college health centers or counseling centers near universities during their college search.

2. Pick the right school: Mental health professionals encourage families to look at schools that offer a wide array of services such as therapeutic intervention, medicine management, crisis response services, peer-to-peer support and training for faculty and staff on how to recognize the signs of mental illness or deterioration.

Families should also make sure the mental health services are adequately staffed.

"If a school of 20,000 students has a counseling service of three people that’s probably a cause for worry. The benchmarks that we think about are about one counselor per 1,000 or 1,500 students," Schwartz says.

Schwartz says that families can learn a lot about a campus health center from the school's website. Information about what services are available and where should be easily accessible to students.

Experts recommend waiting until the summer after a student has been admitted, to discuss a student’s mental history with an institution. Federal laws, such as the American with Disabilities Act, prohibit universities from legally de-enrolling or discriminating against students based on mental health. However, experts encourage students to research an institution's history and policies on withdrawals, and other actions regarding mental health complications with students before enrolling.

Some schools, like Cornell University, reach out to students during the summer to request their medical history and tell them about campus services.

“It’s important for the family and student to explore together the services that available on the campus, in the community and what to do if there is a crisis. And, what the student should do if there is a crisis so every understands what will happen if a crisis happens,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the child and adolescent action center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

3. Prepare for the transition year: Freshman year can be difficult, because it's the first time that students are living on their own and making important decisions without their parents. Experts encourage families to work together and discuss how to balance new responsibilities while maintaining optimal health. Parents can help students create plans to manage day-to-day tasks.

And, if necessary, families can create an emergency response plan that outlines regular check-ins with parents and instructions on how to handle a flare-up. The goal is to help students feel confident so minor issues don’t become a trigger.

Megan Rogers was diagnosed and treated with depression at the age of 15. Nervous about how she would fare at school, she decided to stay in-state but live on campus.

To help with her transition from high school to college, Rogers created what she calls a self-care plan, an outline which considers trigger points for her depression and sets the necessary steps to avoid them.

[Try these time management tips.]

As a freshman, her plan included scheduled time for sleeping, eating regularly and healthily, and blocks of free time in case a flare-up of depression occurred. Rogers says her plan, being involved on campus and the family, school and peer support that she received has helped her stay focused and healthy.

Rogers is now a senior at North Carolina State University, she’ll graduate as valedictorian this spring.

Students are legally responsible for their own health at the age of 18. Familial support is encouraged, but experts say parents should be careful not to take over and strip teens of their independence, unless it’s necessary.

"Parents should stay in touch with their kids. They can’t make decisions for them, but they should be right up there encouraging them to get help," says Nancy Wolf, creator of the mental health advising company Your Bridge Forward.

Wolf says that parents should make sure students are in an environment where seeking help is supported and encouraged, instead of looked at as a weakness.

Planning is vital, but ultimately it’s up to students to take advantage of the services provided on campus and in their communities. Experts warn students not to let fear of being stigmatized or discriminated against prevent them from seeking the help they need.

"I know a common perception on campus is that the counseling center is kind of scary. People don’t want to be seen as crazy," says Rogers. "My fears about being labeled or stigmatized were actually relatively unwarranted. From what I’ve experienced personally, everybody has been incredibly supportive."

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