As we know, many teenagers heading into college can become anxious and emotional. It seems to be a prime time of life for their developing brains to have some emotional hiccups. While most college-bound teens teenagers will only deal with mild to moderate transitional issues, some may experience significant and debilitating symptoms that require extensive interventions. As a psychotherapist in Washington DC who works with ambitious teens transitioning into college, I often provide individual counseling to help these emerging adults stabilize their emotional reactions during the application process, after college acceptance, and while settling into their college of choice. As some teens face the prospect of attending college, it can become overwhelming for both parents and teens to know how to navigate college while dealing with depression, anxiety, or mood related issues.
Before moving to Washington DC, I worked at UC Berkeley with students suffering from psychological disabilities. To qualify for my services, at the start of the semester students could provide documentation of their diagnosis and its impact on their functioning. Some students would do fine with simple accommodations like needing more time on exams or a quiet room for exams. But for those students dealing with mood dysregulation, it was a much more challenging issue.
For example, a student with Bipolar Disorder can generally be okay with good therapy and the right medication. Yet if something triggers his/her symptoms and s/he falls into a deep depression just before midterms, then s/he is all of a sudden in crisis and unable to complete his/her exams. It is a very real, and nightmare-like experience for some college students who suffer from these mental health issues.
The above example was actually the case of a student I worked with. Since this student had met with me at the beginning of the term to identify accommodations needed for his Bipolar Disorder, he was prepared for this crisis and saved from his worst nightmare–failing the course due to not being able to take exams. Why, you ask? Because one of the accommodations for this student was for him to take make-up exams if the symptoms of his disability prevented him from taking the exam at the regularly scheduled time. As soon as he realized he was in a depressive episode, he could contact me to let me know he was not functioning well and was severely depressed. Furthermore, he could reach out to his therapist and psychiatrist and together, we could contact his professors to advocate for him to make up his exams at a later date once he’d stabilized his crisis and returned to functioning. We also could collaborate to come up with a realistic plan for getting his work done, especially given his low levels of functioning. Within two weeks he had made up his exams and was back on track both emotionally and academically.
Managing a mental health issue in a college setting can be difficult but that student was able to get through a rigorous academic environment and keep himself healthy. Below are the steps he took to make that possible:
- He was in regular therapy and took the medications appropriate for his disorder.
- He met with me at the disability office to create accommodations that would protect him from academic disaster if he had a flare up of symptoms.
- He took a smaller course load (10 units instead of the usual 12-14 units)
- He treated his health like it was as critical as any of his classes. He did that by exercising regularly, attending therapy, spending time with friends, having hobbies and getting sleep.
- He worked with my office and his therapist to identify things that could trigger his symptoms. For him, we discovered that the biggest trigger was not getting enough sleep, and knowing this could help him manage his symptoms better and prevent future depressive episodes.
College demands a lot from young people. It is one of the biggest developmental changes in life–to go from a high school, parent/teacher supported environment to being on your own with very little structure or support. Students navigating mental health issues at the college level need a comprehensive, collaborative approach to catch them when they stumble. They need to get to know themselves and how their diagnosis impacts them. But most of all, they need help creating a safety net of support from the very first semester. These simple steps can help college students with mental health needs to avoid their worst academic nightmare and sustain their academic goals before, during, and after a mental health crisis.