Dealing With Mental Illness in College

By Emily Roseman, Alumna of American University

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

My biggest pet peeve is when former classmates, or even close friends, say, "You don’t have a problem, you just think you do.” I’ve suffered from attention deficit disorder and severe anxiety since I was 13.

I remember high school teachers would get annoyed with my grades or the fact I couldn’t follow directions as exact to what was given. I was frustrated with myself; I did and said all the right things but had the constant feeling of letting others down. I didn’t understand my illness and was reprimanded for having one. My high school looked at my learning disability and me as the same thing — a crutch. I was just an average student who wasn’t anything special.

My sense of confidence was abysmal, forcing me to withdraw from any social circles and finding solace in more creative outlets like my photography and production classes. I would beg my teachers to let me eat my lunch in the classroom, physically afraid of being around anyone that thought I was vulnerable. I found myself asking what did I do to deserve to be this different.

Fast forward to college and I finally felt like me again, outgoing and funny. But the idea of letting others down and a severe bout of anxiety settled in once the pressure built back up. In my head, my work was never going to be enough nor would it get me a job, which would be proof I did something right. With the guidance of family and close friends, I found I was able to dissociate my “crutches" and myself and finally felt I was respected for being the person I knew I was all along.

Unfortunately, college is a breeding ground for feelings of anxiety, homesick and depression as students begin their initial adjustments to a new environment. But as you begin to settle in, feeling "crazed" starts to become blurred as buzzwords like bipolar, autism or attention deficit are easily misconstrued as death sentences. While college can act as an agitator for daily stresses, it also has become one of the best outlets for initial diagnosis and treatment for mental illness.

Locate Your Campus Health Center During Week One

While it took me a little longer to feel comfortable talking to a stranger about personal problems, make it a mission to locate and speak with a representative at your college's health center during your first week on campus. If you have existing conditions before starting college, it’s best to find a counselor and make initial contact during your orientation week. Health centers typically have a resource center primarily dedicated to addressing students' mental needs. Whether academically-related or an as-needed basis, colleges are able to provide therapists, group counseling or referrals for any issue impacting students.

Develop Trust in a Health Buddy

Whether it’s a close friend or a significant other, developing a trusting relationship is key to easing your way through college as someone who suffers a mental illness. The days you don’t feel well enough to see a school therapist or moments where you just need a shoulder to lean on, having that one person that will allow you to vent can be an enormous weight off your shoulders. Having one person who also knows your medical needs like medication dosage or your individual triggers can be a life-saving relationship. This person can act as your go-to for any emergency needs or a direct point of contact between you and your family. For me, I developed a crucial relationship with my boyfriend during our four years at college. Knowing which medications I needed for specific problems as well as knowing keywords of consoling to keep me from going over the edge were critical to my ability to get up and get to class in the morning.

Balance an Active Social Scene While Staying Healthy

While college is certainly filled with boundless Greek Life parties and happy hours, its important to understand the implications that maintaining a healthy social life with a mental illness has on your overall health. Like any red-blooded college kid, partying is a right of passage. The occasional off-campus party is bound to happen, but for students who suffer from mild to severe mental illnesses, there is a fine line between partying hard and going overboard. Keep your friends aware of the fact any medications may come into play with alcohol use (if of age) and how this might affect your ability to interact socially. Be sure to party intelligently. If you plan on attending a night out with friends, make sure you are well enough physically and mentally to come in contact with any new surroundings, people or situations. While college may be an ideal environment to experiment in, be sure you are doing so safely. Please refer to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration when dealing with any form of substance abuse and mental illness.

Keep Family in The Loop

While family members may be keenly aware of any existing illnesses before you venture off to college, be sure to keep them updated on your progress and through any bumps in the road. Half of your success as student living with a mental illness is knowing you will encounter both good and bad days. Making sure your parents or immediate family are included as many aspects of college life as possible is a great way to show you are making strides as an individual living with mental illness. Start slow by sharing your weekly schedule with Mom and Dad, allowing them to feel equally as part of the healing process as you are. It’s also a great idea to give invested family members contact info to your school’s counselor or student health center to provide a point of contact concerning medications, weekly visits or progress made.

Mental illness has changed the way I act, speak and look at life. While my learning challenges may be minimal to the debilitating diseases my family and millions of others see on a daily basis, we all can recall a moment where we didn’t feel "normal." If anything, living with and watching mental illness occur before my very eyes has taught me patience, respect and admiration for those who suffer day in and day out. But as you embark before a new chapter in your lives, remember that you are not alone and no matter what your "crutch" may be, you are you, and no one can take that away.

Please use the resources below for more information on mental illness awareness:

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