How to Find a Mental Health-Friendly College (Part Three: Campus Services)

Want to know what other questions Nancy Wolf advises you ask while researching colleges? Read part one and part two of this article.

How Strong is a College’s Center for Disability Services?

Here is where an in-person visit will be valuable, and advance planning will be mandatory.

All universities and colleges must offer accommodations for students with documented physical or mental impairments — it is a federal law. And yes, students living with a mental illness can — and should, as needed — request accommodations that allow them to fully participate in their education. But (you’ve heard me say this before!) the strength of a college’s Center for Disability Services will vary from school to school. And many college offices are much more accustomed to handling requests related to physical needs (such as those that relate to wheelchair accessibility) or typical learning issues (e.g., dyslexia).

Although federal regulations (the ones put into place to implement a federal law) do classify many mental illnesses — such as anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder — as disabilities (and for what it’s worth, I believe that a mental illness can be disabling but isn’t always a disability) for which accommodations can be obtained, a campus Center for Disability Services may not be as familiar with them.

So the student will need to be her own strongest advocate. Parents should know that in college (after age 18), it is up to the student (not her parents) to self-advocate and request accommodations as needed. For students with a mental illness, accessing appropriate accommodations can make a huge difference in staying in school, being academically successful, and graduating on time.

According to a 2012 study by NAMI, the majority of college students with mental health challenges don’t seek out accommodations from their school. Why is that? Are they afraid of a stigma? Unaware of their legal rights? Is it too burdensome a process? Is the Center for Disability Services unfriendly to students with mental illness?

Know that you can — if you need to — ask a college for accommodations such as:

  • Excused absences for mental health treatment
  • Course withdrawals without penalty
  • Adjustment in test settings
  • Extensions on homework and exam deadlines

Planning Tips

Parents and their children with pre-existing diagnoses of mental illness should check out the Center for Disability Services during a campus tour or at a later date in the research process.

Then, after acceptance, a student should make an appointment with the same office to set up all needed accommodations before the first semester starts. I’d suggest leaving plenty of time for this process, as many Centers for Disability Services are small, understaffed, and often overwhelmed, especially in late summer and early fall just before and after school starts. And since documentation (such as a letter from your at-home psychiatrist or educational consultant) is needed, the more time you have to prepare, the better.

In Conclusion:

Let me end this article by pointing out the obvious: you will not see a banner heading on a college or university’s website stating: “Students with Mental Illness Welcome Here!”

But you are welcome everywhere.

It is up to you — the parent or the student living with a mental illness — to do your research, find a college or university that will provide you with both academic challenge and the mental health support you need, and put into place a plan to stay as stable and healthy as possible.

Remember that you can use Noodle to find the right college for you, comparing your options by size, location, work load, social life, and other factors relevant to your mental health.