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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Promoting Positive Outcomes in College

by Dana Markey, Program Coordinator, NAMI Child & Adolescent Action Center

     The college experience is challenging for all students as they navigate through making new friends, achieving academic success, establishing their identity, learning to live independently, and planning their futures. For students with mental health treatment needs, the additional responsibility of managing their mental illness can make these already difficult tasks even more overwhelming. 

     However, students with mental illnesses can and are successful in college with the right supports. The following strategies are helpful in promoting positive outcomes in college for students with mental health treatment needs:

  • Building Support Networks. A large support network during college is crucial to combat feelings of isolation. Fortunately, there are many opportunities in college to connect with others, including joining study groups, befriending individuals with common interests, and being matched up with upperclassman mentors who can serve as role models and provide guidance. Students should surround themselves with peers who can “show the way” to succeeding in college. NAMI has student-run, student-led, campus groups across the country that can help students build their support network. Visit www.nami.org/NAMIonCampus for more information.     

Students are also encouraged to connect with their professors before the school year starts so if classes get challenging and accommodations are needed, the relationships are already in place to request support.

  • Setting Goals. It is important to focus on one goal at a time and to create a plan that has clear expectations and a realistic timeline. Students may need to work with a coach to lesson feelings of being overwhelmed and to help them understand “if and then” statements, identify what it will take to achieve a specific goal, and how to prepare accordingly. A coach can also help students develop social skills and learn how to handle numerous social interactions that are important to succeeding in college and life afterwards. Coaches are often available through a school’s Career Center.
  • Creating Structure. Establishing a daily schedule of supportive activities, including homework, studying, social outings, and a workout routine, helps reduce stress and accomplish academic and personal goals. Students should opt for early classes, which help create structure and give them a reason to start their day. Students are also encouraged to volunteer or intern in an area that interests them. This activity provides an opportunity for them to make additional connections, build positive experiences, and try out careers. All activities should be written into a daily planner and time should be budgeted accordingly.
  • Building Upon Strengths. Students are disempowered when opportunities for success are not built into their lives. Students should search online before school starts to identify opportunities to become involved on campus in ways that utilize their strengths. Having these opportunities in place enable students to feel confident and successful. It is vital that students’ strengths are taken into account when they are building their support networks, setting goals, and creating a structure of supportive activities. 

     Before the school year starts, it is important to explore various resources to determine what supports are the best match; one size does not fit all for students with mental health treatment needs. The resources listed below can be helpful in deciding what colleges and supports are the best fit.

     College provides an environment conducive to self-discovery and boundless success; it is critical that students with mental illnesses are given the right supports that build on their strengths so they can enjoy the college years and be catapulted into a successful and productive life.

Resources on College-Based Mental Health Services

NAMI on Campus
Provides helpful hints on choosing the right college for students with mental health treatment needs and various resources specifically for college students.

Active Minds
Develops and supports student-run mental health awareness, education, and advocacy groups on the college campus

Campus Blues 
Includes a list of mental health resources available at over 300 college campuses, mental health guides for college students, and forums.

Jed Foundation
Provides resources to prevent suicide and promote mental health among college students.

Editors Note: This article was developed from NAMI’s July Children’s Conference Call with Dr. Ken Duckworth. Special guest, Kimberly Bisset, Ed.D, Employment and Training Manager, Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, presented on Keys to a Successful College Experience.

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