6 Ways College is Different for Students with Mental Illnesses

By Maxine Diehl

The transition of leaving home and going to college is a big step for anyone. Your entire life changes and you have to face all the emotional hurdles without your family and friends next to you. However, people who live with mental illnesses like anorexia, depression or anxiety face even more difficulties than the average college student. Here are just six of the many ways that college is different for people who struggled with mental health issues.

1. Spending all day every day with people is exhausting.

You probably used to wear a mask to hide what you were really thinking and feeling during your struggles. Only when you were at home or with true friends did you let that mask go. In college, you have to get used to breaking that habit, otherwise acting all day will completely exhaust you. “It took months before I realized that I didn’t have to smile all day to ensure no one worried about me feeling bad again,”  says Jane*, a junior at Boston University who has depression.

2. Living with people other than your family is scary.

You fear that roommates will judge your habits and notice all of your quirks. They may not understand them and you’ll have to explain that you need to sleep at a set time everyday because of insomnia, or that you need meals every five hours because you used to suffer from an eating disorder and otherwise get nauseous easily. “For the first weeks of college I felt horrible, because I didn’t want to tell my roommate that I had to go to bed because of my meds when she still wanted to talk. I was scared she would think I was being unsocial,” says Brittany*, a sophomore at Boston University.

3. Pressure to party or drink can result in massive anxiety.

If you have an addiction, the idea of being surrounded by alcohol and drugs is a massive trigger. Similarly, if you deal with anxiety, a crowded evening sounds like the opposite of fun. But especially if you are looking to join a sorority, a lot of people will keep asking you to come out, which will leave you feeling left out if you don’t go, and uncomfortable if you do. “Once I admitted that I would rather stay in and watch a movie, a lot of my friends were willing to do the same,” says Anna*, a freshman at Emerson College.  We often forget that there are lots of people who are in similar situations and maybe equally afraid to speak up.

4.  Irregular schedules can lead to a lot of stress during the first weeks.

Unlike when you were in school or therapy, there is no set time for work, rest and food. Instead, you have to adapt and find a schedule that works for you. However the beginning of every semester is a lot harder, as your body and mind have been through more than your peers' and therefore don’t adjust as quickly. “I always try and adjust my classes to ensure I can wake up and go to bed around the same times. It makes picking classes a lot more of a hassle,” Brittany says.

5. You have to fill out forms for medications and doctors.

As if college didn’t already bring enough paperwork with it, people with mental illness will often have to fill out many more forms about their current mental state and are forced to deliver supporting material of your mental health if they plan to go abroad or transfer schools. Furthermore, vacations are spent checking up with all your old doctors back home and refilling prescriptions.

6. Moving requires a lot more planning.

If you’re still seeing a counsellor or doctor, the idea of moving to go to college elsewhere is daunting. It takes time to build up trust with your doctor and having to look for someone new in a new city can be an arduous process. “I already had to see a bunch of doctors back home in order to find one I clicked with. Looking for someone new again really frustrated me, as it felt like I had to explain everything all over, even stuff I was no longer dealing with," says Jane*, about her move to Boston from another country. In fact, according to one study 80 percent feel overwhelmed with their new responsibilities.

College forces us all to grow and speak up about our needs, but if you have to deal with any extra differences because of your past, you deserve even more respect. In the end, it will make you stronger and you should be proud of the changes you’ve overcome, but keep reminding yourself that what you’re doing is hard and cut yourself some slack. And if your friend or roommate has to deal with any of these issues, try and be understanding and help her adjust as well as possible.

*Names have been changed.