Navigating The College Search – Tips For Students Battling Mental Health Issues

By: Susan Kehl | Last Updated: September 15, 2022



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Helping our kids choose their best-fit colleges and preparing them to leave the nest is always bittersweet. There are so many things to consider, from educational and logistical factors to the heart-wrenching emotional aspects (my baby is going to college!). Emotional challenges intensify when our kids are battling mental health issues.

Independent Educational Consultant Judi Robinovitz says that mental health issues like anxiety and depression are on the rise among adolescents.

In fact, an article posted by Mayo Clinic Health System indicated that approximately 44 percent of college students reported having symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2021.

“When students dealing with mental health challenges are getting ready to apply to college, it’s important to consider their specific needs,” Robinovitz said. “The goal is to ensure that a college is not only the right fit in terms of meeting their educational requirements as well as their social and emotional health needs – but also that these students have access to the tools and resources necessary to thrive in their college home.”

If your teen faces mental health challenges, what should you consider in the college search?:

Talk to your Teen

Is he ready to spread his wings and attend an out-of-state college or an in-state school that’s too far to visit home regularly – or would he prefer to stay close to home? Discuss the pros and cons as you create your college list. Also, keep an open dialogue about college and how to best support your teen’s mental health throughout the process. Resource guides like Starting The Conversation: College and Your Mental Health provide insights and information to get you started. Let him know that no matter what he decides, you will always be available to support him.

Speak to your child’s doctor and/or therapist

If your teen is seeing a therapist, consult with the therapist to gain insights into your teen’s college readiness. If your teen is taking medication for a mental health issue, find out how prescriptions and refills will be handled if he attends a far-away college. Does his therapist want to continue regular virtual sessions for continuity of care, or is your teen ready to fly solo? Perhaps his therapist can refer you to a mental health professional in your teen’s college town. If your teen doesn’t have a therapist, consult with his doctor or pediatrician.

Develop Healthy Habits At Home

Discuss topics like underage drinking with your teen and help him develop good self-care habits before he leaves the nest. Encourage him to get adequate sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, exercise, and limit screen time. Make sure he works on his time management skills and develops effective ways to cope with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Fostering healthy habits now can help him better adjust when he’s in college.

Review Your Health Insurance Policy

Most health insurance policies cover mental health services, but it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with exactly what your plan does – and does not cover. For example, if your teen sees a therapist in his college town, will your plan cover it, or will it be considered out-of-network?

Research Potential Colleges to Determine Availability and Accessibility of Mental Health Services

Before enrolling in a college, it’s important to know which mental health services are available and how accessible they are. A majority of colleges offer student counseling services – many even have counseling and wellness centers with a full-time staff of mental health professionals. However, most college counseling centers are struggling to keep up with the demand for their services, and according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, the demand for services often exceeds the supply of available counselors. Be sure to understand appointment availability, hours of operation, and how prospective college counseling centers handle urgent mental health issues. Your goal is to ensure that your teen can readily access a qualified mental health professional should the need arise.

At Age18, Your Teen is Considered an Adult

As a legal adult, your teen’s doctors, mental health providers – and even his college – cannot share his personal information with you. If your teen is being treated by a mental health provider, encourage him to sign a HIPAA authorization for the release of health information so that the provider can share information with you about his treatment and progress. You may also want your teen to grant you access to his grades, as his performance in school can give you insights into his mental health and well-being.

Establish a ‘Mental Health Emergency Plan’

Make sure your teen knows what to do and whom to call in the event of a mental health crisis. Organize useful information in a box or other convenient location. Include details like a list of his medications (noting any medication allergies), pharmacy details, therapist and doctor phone numbers, phone numbers for mental health support hotlines, and other pertinent information. If you believe he may be at risk for self-harm, be sure to include the 988 Suicide and crisis Lifeline.

Other Types of Student Support

In addition to counseling services, your teen might consider peer advising sessions, on-campus support groups, and college clubs and activities. Getting involved and connecting with other students can help overcome homesickness and feelings of isolation, so make sure that prospective colleges have a variety of activities and support services that meet your teen’s needs and interests.

Download a Location-Sharing App

Create a family sharing group with a location-sharing app like Life360 or Apple’s Find My app. Seeing your teen’s ‘dot’ move about campus provides peace of mind, and your teen might feel comforted and connected knowing he can ‘find’ you any time.

Know Whom To Contact In Case of Emergency

If your teen enrolls in a college that requires living away from home, find out whom to contact should you need someone to check on his well-being. In a dorm, talk to your teen’s Resident Advisor (RA) and keep his or her contact information on hand in case of emergency. Also keep the campus police department phone number handy, as most will conduct student ‘welfare check-ins’ upon request.

Special Accommodations

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, colleges must provide academic accommodations and make special considerations for students with certain documented mental health issues. Examples might include allowing students additional time to take exams, lighter course loads, extended assignment times, and the option of taking exams in a separate, quiet classroom. In order to receive special accommodations, students must typically register with the college’s disability resource center.

Know Where to Seek Academic Help

A student who is struggling with mental health may also struggle academically, which can lead to anxiety and unhealthy coping strategies like skipping class, drinking, or substance abuse. When researching colleges, find out what tutoring and mentoring services are available to help your teen achieve and maintain academic success.

Taking a Leave of Absence

If your teen is truly struggling with mental health once enrolled in college, he should understand that his mental health comes first and that there is no shame in taking a leave of absence. Check with your prospective universities about leave of absence policies, and how taking a leave might affect your teen’s financial aid, scholarships, and other aspects of his enrollment.

Consider an Independent Educational Consultant or College Counselor

The college application process can be daunting, and helping teens find the colleges that best suit their needs can feel like a monumental task. Independent Educational Consultants (IECs) and professional college counselors can help ease the burden, guide you in your choices, and help with the application process from start to finish. Your IEC will take your teen’s particular needs into consideration and customize a plan just for him.

Starting college is a major life transition that’s exciting – yet stressful – for all students. If your teen is experiencing mental health challenges, don’t despair. Robinovitz says planning ahead can help ensure that your teen finds a best-fit college.

“Work with your teen to prepare him before he leaves for college, do your research, and have a strong support system in place,” she said. “Make sure he knows when and where to seek help and – above all – let him know that his emotional health and well-being come first and that he can reach out to you any time, night or day.”

Need help finding your best-fit college? Give us a call. Our team of educational consultants, essay specialists, and college counselors will guide you every step of the way. We’ve helped thousands of students get admitted to their best-fit colleges – and we can help you!

Topics: Mental Health


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