Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Completing My Education while Managing Mental Illness

Completing My Education while Managing Mental Illness

By Dani Z
I have not posted in a while because I have been having difficulties managing my time and stress levels effectively since school started. I know that I am not the only one that struggles to find balance as a person living with mental health issues. A recent study published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness revealed that up to 64% of college students living with mental illness ultimately drop out of school due to difficulties with their illness. Although this is an alarming statistic, I must say I am not that surprised. I have struggled for years working to complete my college education while managing my mental illness. For the first time this semester I decided to get help from my school’s Office for Students with Disabilities. This is my first semester back since I have been doing this well in recovery but it is still much more challenging than I thought it would be. I am determined to make it through this semester so I have finally decided to seek some help.
Overall the amount of students reported to be receiving mental health treatment while in college is on the rise. There are several possible causes for this.1,2,3
  • People are more willing to seek help than in the past.
  • There are improved treatment options available that allow people to function well enough to go to school that wouldn’t have been able to in the past.
  • Mental health conditions are often diagnosed and treated earlier in life so many students are arriving to college already being treated for mental health issues.
Despite the fact that more people living with mental illness are working towards their education they often struggle because of their mental health issues. They do not seek the help or accommodations that are available to them and end up dropping out of school. The NAMI survey revealed 50% of the students that dropped out because of mental health issues said that they never sought help from the disability office at their school. Personally I have struggled in the past with making the decision of whether or not to ask for help from the Office for Students with Disabilities at my school. In the vlog below I talk more about my experience. I struggled with idea of being labeled “disabled”. What will the people at my school think of me? I didn’t want to get special accommodations because I thought that they might give me an excuse to be lazy. I know I am smart and I am much healthier than before so I told myself I shouldn’t need any special accommodations.

I have finally decided to humble myself and get the help I have needed for years. I am passionate about raising mental health awareness and supporting others. I know that I can help more people and have more credibility in this field if I get my education. I will do whatever it takes in order to achieve my goals, which means doing the best I can now, where I am now, with what I have now.
What kind of services and accommodations are available to students with mental illness? Many schools offer free or discounted counseling to students. In order to have special accommodations made through the disability office a note from a doctor, psychiatrist or a therapist is required. Specific accommodations will depend on your individual situation and your school’s policies. Here are a few examples of what is offered:
  • Counseling services
  • Medication/psychiatrist visit if the school employs one
  • Test accommodations like: extended time, use of computer for typing “written exams”, etc.
  • Excused absences
  • Extended time on assignments
  • Copies of class notes
  • Ability to withdraw from class for medical reasons if needed so that it will not negatively impact your transcript.
  • Some campuses have support groups available like NAMI on Campus and Active Minds (These are great resources please check out these links)
I spoke with the disability councilor at my school and she actually recommended that I take a medical withdraw from one of my classes. She said the number of hours I am working and classes I was taking would be challenging even for a student that didn’t have any disabilities. (I admit it was difficult to hear that.) She recommended I just start with one class if I have to work. She talked with me about the documentation I would need to send in to have the dropped class taken off my transcript for medical reasons. She also told me that I could get a couple other withdrawals from the past taken off my transcript too.
I am also getting some assistance in the class I am still attending. I get extended time on my tests and am able to type my answers to the English test essays rather than wright them. The councilor told me that she couldn’t offer me more time on my assignments but I have talked to the teacher personally about the situation. He has been flexible enough with me so that I am able to keep up. The councilor also told me that when I am ready to register for next semester I can come in and talk to her about the courses I want to take and she will help me figure out the best teachers and classes to register for.
I admit I am still getting adjusted to the whole situation. I woke up this morning and honestly felt very discouraged as I got ready for school. I wanted to have my paper finished to turn in today by the time I got there. Instead I am going to have to email it to my English teacher tonight and go in during his office hours tomorrow and talk to him about it. I had to remind myself of all the improvements I have made in recovery and that I am almost finished with this semester. I haven’t successfully completed a semester in years so that in its self is an accomplishment. I am doing well in the class and I know it will be an amazing feeling to make it all the way to the last day of class. I may not be doing perfectly but I am definitely making progress.
My goals right now are to continue with classes, get a bachelors and see where it goes from there. I plan on taking as many hours as I can while working. I think it would be awesome if I can start a NAMI on Campus or an Active Minds group at my campus someday but I know for now I need to focus on my own recovery and time management skills before taking on such a huge new responsibility. If you are living with mental illness and are interested in getting a degree I want to encourage you to get help from your school’s office of students with disabilities. If you know someone with mental health issues that is struggling in school please support them by letting them know help is available. There is a quote by Albert Einstein that I have been holding onto in this situation, maybe you will find it encouraging to: “Once we accept our limits we go beyond them”.

To me accepting our limits means doing the best we can now, with what we have now, where we are now. If we do that we will surely make progress and get the most out of all life’s experiences.

¹ The New York Times “Mental Health Needs Seen Growing at Colleges”
² American Psychological Association “The State of Mental Health on College Campuses: A Growing Crisis”
³ NPR “Colleges See Rise In Mental Health Issues”

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