When living with depression, attending a supportive college is important. Available resources and policies are just some of the things to consider in your search.
When I was making my college plans during my senior year of high school, I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as a “mental-health-friendly college.”
I assumed that I would simply attend the most prestigious college or university I was accepted to and that they’d support me through the worst times of my mental health when I arrived.
Oh, how I was wrong!
After attending several different colleges for undergraduate and graduate school, I’ve learned that each college has its own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to helping students who are dealing with mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety.
In this article, I’ll share with you some of the things you should be looking for in a college.
This important factor is one of the first things you should look into.
For example, is the college in the middle of a city? Urban colleges can be good because this often means better access to mental health professionals. Cities can provide more providers in a closer proximity to you.
At the same time, urban colleges can be overwhelming when you’re depressed, so keep in mind your comfort level when it comes to cities.
If a college is in a more rural environment and more isolated, you may have trouble finding mental health professionals. This is important to consider because many campus health centers do not provide mental health services beyond brief counseling and support groups.
When it comes to size, if you attend a smaller school with fewer professionals, you may end up on a waiting list, especially to get an appointment with a psychiatrist (a mental health professional who can prescribe medication). Larger schools sometimes offer more services and more providers and generally have more resources.
While you’re exploring colleges, keep these things in mind. Depending on your depression severity, you may benefit from a school that’s in a college town or one that has an affiliated medical school or hospital. Be sure to visit the campuses, if you can, to see how you feel once you get there.
Many campus health centers will only see you if you have a less complicated mental health problem. So, if you’re experiencing a more severe depressive episode, you might be referred to an off-campus resource.
I struggled to find mental health resources on every college campus I lived on. From my experience, it seems like more students are being diagnosed with depression, and schools are having trouble meeting the demand for services.
The first place you might want to look for available outside support is a local medical school. However, these services can be pricey without insurance.
For example, I didn’t have health insurance during my sophomore year of college. To be able to afford mental health services, I saw a psychiatric resident who was in his third year of postgraduate training. He was supervised by an attending psychiatrist — a licensed physician who was a member of the clinical faculty at the medical school.
You might also want to investigate the crisis resources available in the surrounding area. This typically means hospitals with emergency rooms and psychiatric units. Some hospitals are known to be better than others, and you can find reviews on the internet.
Teaching hospitals are also known to be filled with experienced psychiatrists who can provide services at a reduced rate.
If your depression is less severe and you think that you might just need some help transitioning into the college experience, student health centers are a great resource.
These centers often provide support groups for specific issues, too, like sexuality, eating disorders, or grief. Meeting with other students who are experiencing similar issues can be a big help.
Additionally, many counseling centers have skill groups that can teach you ways to cope with your depression, like emotional regulation techniques found in dialectical behavior therapy.
If you have a sudden crisis, a college’s student health center can be a good place to seek help. Every weekday, a triage counselor is typically available to help guide you through a mental health emergency.
A few weeks into my first semester at college, I sought help at the counseling and psychological services office. I met with a very helpful counselor who decided that I needed more intensive treatment for my depression and helped me get admitted to the hospital.
I just want to emphasize that the campus health center is not usually meant for longer-term problems. You will want to check out the full mental health landscape as you’re filling out your college applications.
One of the hardest parts of my transition into college life was living with another person. While I fell apart even more each day, I watched my roommate skip off to her statistics and chemistry lectures. I could hardly even get out of bed. She also had a boyfriend, and I felt like the two of them were constantly laughing at me and making jokes about me.
If it’s an option, you might feel more comfortable in a single room instead of living with someone who reinforces how awful you feel. Everybody has different preferences.
When I supervised a dorm, I came across many students who wanted to live by themselves. If you end up having roommate conflicts, please feel free to go to your resident advisor or the professional who is in charge of your residence hall. They are there to mediate these conflicts and help you live in a more comfortable environment where you can be happy and healthy.
At some colleges, in order to be assigned a single room, you must have a registered disability. Depression is a psychiatric condition that qualifies for this.
When you’re looking for a college, you also want to see what sort of resources each school has to offer students with disabilities. When you enroll, your mental health professional can fill out paperwork verifying your disability and recommendations for accommodations both in and out of the classroom.
Most colleges and universities also have student groups based on mental health advocacy. For example, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has campus affiliates.
Students at different colleges have also started similar groups. These can be a way for you to meet other students who might be living with similar mental health conditions or know someone who is. These groups may also raise funds to support mental health initiatives on campus or activities to prevent suicide.
You can easily find out what student organizations a college has on their website. In some cases, they might even have contact information (phone or e-mail), so you can get in touch with students who are interested in mental health issues on each campus and get a better understanding of how they approach it.
You don’t want to consider leaving college before you’ve even started, but some schools definitely make it easier to reenroll in your degree program after taking a leave.
Some schools simply want a letter from your treating psychiatrist, and others may require a committee meeting of advisors to vote on your readmission.
I’ve seen both of these approaches in coming back to school. This is something that you want to be aware of just in case you need a break from school. You can always come back when it’s a more opportune time and you’re healthy enough to benefit from your education.
Choosing a college is a big life decision, and we all have different priorities when it comes to this choice. But when you’re living with chronic depression, it’s important to find a school that will support you in the ways you need.
Consider making a list of things that are important for your mental health, and make sure that your college will provide you with the environment and resources that will set you up for success.
Medically reviewed on September 27, 2023
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