A Diagnosis of Mental Illness Need Not End a College Career

MAR. 19, 2018

By Marjorie Baldwin


A recent survey reports that 47% of adults living with schizophrenia drop out of college, compared to the 27% college dropout rate in the U.S. overall.  Another study reports that students diagnosed with bipolar disorder are 70% more likely to drop out of college than students with no psychiatric diagnosis.

My son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his junior year of college. I was devastated by what I perceived to be the loss of hope for his future, but he was determined to return to school and complete his degree. His university, which had been eager to help him withdraw when he became ill, was most unwilling to help him re-enroll after his symptoms were under control. When I called the Disability Services Office for help, a staff member told me, “Your son got in trouble…”

I responded, “My son did not get in trouble, my son got sick.”

This kind of negative attitude from a university is tragic. Many young people with schizophrenia or other serious mental health conditions are perfectly capable of completing a college education. There is no reason for universities to discriminate against students living with mental illness—in fact, such discrimination is against the law.

What Universities Should be Doing

It is the role of university faculty to enable the success of their students, not to impede it. Rather than assume a student living with schizophrenia will never return to campus, a university should:

  • Maintain contact with students and families after a diagnosis, and encourage the student’s return to school when their symptoms are stable.
  • Ensure that there is a person with expertise/experience with mental illness on their disability services staff.
  • Provide counseling and support services to assist in a student’s success when they re-enter school.

What Parents Can Do

Unfortunately, most universities, and society at large, have not adopted such enlightened policies towards students living with mental illness. Until they do, parents have to be the advocates for their children who want to return to school. Rather than losing hope, as I did in the beginning, here’s what parents can do:

  • Assume that your son or daughter will recover, return to school and complete their degree. They may need to take a lighter course load, change majors, or take longer to graduate, but so long as their symptoms are under control, they can succeed.
  • Enlist the support of mental health providers. You will likely need the approval of a psychiatrist before your child can re-enroll in school. Mental health providers should encourage a return to school as soon as symptoms are in remission. If they’re telling you, “It’s not possible to graduate from college with schizophrenia,” then find a doctor with a more positive outlook.
  • Understand your child’s rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits colleges and universities from discriminating against students living with a mental illness, so long as the student meets the academic and behavioral requirements of the school. A college or university may not deny access to a student solely on the basis of mental illness, or refuse to implement appropriate accommodations that will help a student achieve their educational goals.

When my son prepared to return to school, his psychiatrist approved readmission on the condition that he take a reduced course load. An unenlightened staff member in the Disability Services Office told me, “If your son is not prepared to take a full-time load, he shouldn’t be coming back to school at all.” That position is illegal under the ADA: A reduced course load is a reasonable accommodation for students living with mental illness.

Returning to school has both short and long-term benefits for students, like my son, who experience a psychotic break in the midst of their college career. In the short run, returning to classes provides structure for their days, re-establishes their identity as a student, and helps restore their self-esteem. In the long run, completing their degree helps counteract the stigma that persons with mental illness are incompetent, and increases the likelihood of stable employment. Best of all, as my son said when he graduated,

“Mom, whatever happens now, they can’t take this away from me.”


Marjorie L. Baldwin is a health economist in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, and mother of a young man with schizophrenia. Her recently published book, Beyond Schizophrenia: Living and Working with a Serious Mental Illness, describes her efforts to help her son recover, together with the latest research on education and employment for persons with SMI.


Note: An earlier version of this blog appeared on NAMI.org in August 2016.


AUG, 05, 2018 01:43:30 PM
My 23 yr old son was diagnosed schizophrenic/ mood disorder and it’s been so difficult to get him to accept his illness and get help he won’t take meds and go to therapy. I tried getting him help but it’s hard what do I do? Wait till he has another episode and get him hospitalized. Very difficult I feel alone. The case manager assigned to his case is no help at all, she suggested I get him arrested if he acts up. Wow don’t want him in jail he’s not violent and is very smart but he gets frustrated because he keeps getting fired from jobs he just don’t accept that he’s mentally ill and needs medication. Very sad situation what do i do.

MAY, 06, 2018 04:55:32 PM
In the second year in college my son had the first bipolar episode, and had two more relapses over the next three years. From his third episode, his college charged him with criminal offenses and he was jailed for over one hundred days. Since he was released from jail, his college expelled him and he is still facing criminal charges brought by his former college, going through court proceedings. After spending four years and almost the full four-year cost, I see a college turned my son into a criminal for his mental illness episodes.

MAY, 01, 2018 03:51:32 PM
Martha Santillan
I am the mother of a teenager that has been diagnosed with schizophrenia back in Dec, 2017. I have not stop crying. My daughter had her first episode in Dec and I was not understanding what was going on and still don’t understand why. She has been a straight A student. She was admitted into a mental facility for the whole month of Dec and part of January 2018. I spent New Years in the hospital with my daughter where in her episode attact she rejected me, she thought I was a devil because of my dark eyes. She was seeing ghosts and thought the hospital was doing a test on her. I was told by the doctors my daughter had to take Risperdal for the rest of her life. So many things I can’t still digest. It is now May, she has recover and is going to college and has a part time job as a cashier thanks to her meds. It just worries me that if she has an episode while working or anywhere else and cops or anybody wouldn’t understand. With a lot going on now a days she can get hurt maybe thinking she’s doing things on purpose and not understanding her mental illness. I want people to get more involved and understand mental disorder so killing or taking this patients to jail won’t happen.

APR, 09, 2018 06:15:28 AM
John Trombley
Everyone loves what you guys tend to be up too. This kind of clever work and coverage!

MAR, 28, 2018 09:12:43 PM
Don't give up! My son was diagnosed with schizophrenia his freshman year at a large University. He was determined to finish but they did not seem interested in helping however the local community college did a very good job of accommodating him and some of his professors were just wonderful. It kept him going and I was so proud when he graduated.

MAR, 28, 2018 06:08:13 PM
Jason Bowman
Thank you for sharing this poignant and powerful story. Your son's experience rings true for many of the students we work in Fountain House's College Re-Entry program (www.collegereentry.org). We have seen how helpful it is to young adults when they strengthen key academic and life skills and establish appropriate on-campus support as they return. It is important that college and university administrators understand that students with mental illness can successfully achieve their academic goals with the right support.

MAR, 28, 2018 05:05:55 PM
Beverly Scott
What about the individual that is unable to finish high school, let alone college?
Without a high school diploma, a person’s future career choices become very limited. Let’s get some intensive help for high school drop-outs!

MAR, 28, 2018 03:50:38 PM
Mary Olive Smith
Fountain House in New York City has started a terrific, one-of-a-kind 14-week program called "College Re-Entry" specifically designed to help students return to school successfully. They gain skills, support and confidence. http://collegereentry.org/

MAR, 28, 2018 03:04:47 PM
I had a devastating mental illness-related event in college freshman year... and wound up going Ivy League for grad school :) Mental illness does NOT have to stand in the way of your academic goals

MAR, 26, 2018 05:04:59 PM
Lizanne Corbit
I'm so happy to come across this read because I know it will speak to so many. It's not uncommon for young adults to receive a mental illness diagnosis in late high school years/early college. With the stress of school/future/transitions this can feel like a crushing weighty sentence. This is not the case. I'm so glad to see more people having these conversations and making the necessary resources available.

MAR, 25, 2018 01:49:35 AM
Against the law or not people are not too nice in the workplace. Once you complain to HR you are done--toast. Then everyone gangs up on you until you can't take it anymore. I have had to quit 3 jobs. I really do understand how someone does "go postal".

MAR, 24, 2018 05:46:37 PM
I’m Sad, lonely, anxious, and scared.
I had to drop out of high school because of my mental illness so I feel a little worthless that I couldn’t even pass 10th grade. My therapists, counsellors, etc. have not been very helpful as I have requested vocational, social skills, and living skills but haven’t gotten any help. Waiting for years now too. There’s no psychiatrist we’re I’m at. I hate my life. While some people with mental illness attended Ivy League schools, I’m here stuck in a awful small town with no prospects, help or future. I hate myself so much.

MAR, 20, 2018 06:07:01 PM
Melissa Czarnecki
Thank you, Ms. Baldwin, for this article and for your persistence on behalf of your son and others. There is still so much ignorance and stigma out there. I think of Marsha Linehan, Elyn Saks, Kay Jamison, and others who never gave up and made invaluable contributions to our knowledge and understanding of mental illness. Where would the field be if they had not persisted and who knows what break throughs may come from those currently suffering with these diagnoses but persisting in obtaining education and creating meaningful lives for themselves and their families.

MAR, 20, 2018 03:48:38 PM
My daughter had to leave college at the end of her sophomore year due to the onset of schizophrenia. It took her 8 years of stabilizing her illness and getting through a 2 year computer programming degree, but she did it. Big issue now is who will hire her? She is finding out how hard it is to get an interview with large gaps in her employment history. In addition, can she find a company that will work with her sleep pattern of waking up late morning. She received no placement help from her junior college. She worked with Mers Goodwill, but I felt they didn't grasp the daily issues her illness places on her. There must be companies out there that want creative, intelligent and determined individuals; we just don't know who else to turn to for help.

MAR, 02, 2017 12:40:00 AM
Md. Holly
My son was diognose at 16 with schizophrenia. He is 21 today. It's been 1yr since his last hospitalization.
I'm hoping the medication he's now on will allow him to attend college which is what he wants to do.
I'v told him starting off slow would be a good idea which he agrees with.
Thanks to all who have shared their story's.
You've all given me motivation and much hope that even with all his past struggles there is hope.

SEP, 10, 2016 04:22:08 AM
My son did not get the support he needed when I reached out to his college's Ministry of Counseling program concerning his symptoms of schizophrenia. I felt helpless that no one wanted to help. He had to drop out. He wants to finish college, but has struggled with focus, confidence and coming to terms with his illness. We're getting him on track to get healthy, figure out what will help his focus and taking one class at a time. Scared, but not giving up.

SEP, 09, 2016 12:40:53 PM
My child graduated top 1% in the high school class and was attending a top college (USNWR ranking within top 10). My child was diagnosed bipolar 1 after sophomore year, but was the second episode in college and the school officials were well aware of the condition. In the midst of the latest (3rd) relapse, took the medical leave, but the manic episode was rampant and in full display, and the school officials had my child evicted from a private apartment, they had my child arrested twice for reasons of my child's clear manic symptoms, and the second incarceration lasted five months and still has the pending court case for the second incarceration. This college is a nation's top research university, has a top notch neuroscience and neurobiology department, but the school faculty do not seem to understand this severe mental illness and the symptoms of it, and my child's life is in serious jeopardy because of the arrest records, which were for reasons of this severe mental illness, bipolar disorder 1.

SEP, 05, 2016 03:19:59 PM
My child graduated from a leading university claiming to be a forerunner in the area. There was little support or assistance from the university, and actions are interpreted as inappropriate instead of a byproduct of an illness often not fully understood because it often manifests itself during college years. It's time there is more support in the dorms, on the campus, so students can succeed.

SEP, 01, 2016 04:57:19 AM
Elliot Redman
I experienced my first two bipolar periods of "cycling" in my junior and senior years of college in 1971-73. I was ashamed to admit to others, or even to myself, what was happening to me and that it may be bipolar disorder. It took me a relatively short time to own that I had depression and, literally, over 44 years to own that what I really had - and have - was and is bipolar disorder. That occurred in November 2014. All of this contributed to a lowering of my potential and fully reaching for my dreams all of those years. Now, I not only "own" my diagnosis, my ownership of it is a major factor today in my life having become so full and blessed. Bottom line: we and our children and our grandchildren and our other family and our friends need to be supported with accepting their mental health diagnosis as we would want, and they probably would be, supported with any physical health diagnosis. This is a major aspect of the challenge of evening the "playing field" for those living with and those that will be living with a major mental health disease.

AUG, 31, 2016 10:14:57 PM
Cyndi Wright
My college story began in 1973, unbeknownst to me at the time, as a bipolar. Fast forward 35 years (and six college campuses later) I graduated with my B.A. in Communication Studies. I loved academia and the structure and achievement it provided.

AUG, 31, 2016 04:11:24 PM
What and excellent article!! Love you and excellent article!! There should be an organization to help and motivate the awareness in the need for this. Thank you very much.

AUG, 31, 2016 02:34:48 PM
Thank you for this post...you and your son are not alone. Healing is possible and with will and support he can finish school. I am a witness being hospitalized for a psychotic episode in senior year college. I did not get much support from the University level either but had support from the faith community to recover and graduate on time. More has to be done to raise awareness for young adults, we see a lot changing in this world and easy to have mental break downs without mental education and support from family, churches, schools, etc. to see signs before an attack. Please Keep sharing and healing.

AUG, 31, 2016 01:28:36 PM
I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in my second year of a MD residency for Psychiatry. I had to take time off as a result of the onset of symptoms and returned part time. The demands of working and taking the "call-schedule" as a resident MD was difficult but the residency directors were excellent and accommodated my disability and I completed my training 3/5 time. After finishing my training, I was able to work on a 30 hour work week for 11 years. I loved my work, especially in my specialty area with children and adolescents. I would not give that up for anything. Even though the rigors of working as a MD have become too great to maintain stability, I am glad that I was able to do it all. As you said in the article "you can't take that away from me!" I still think of the patients that I worked with often.

AUG, 31, 2016 01:07:19 PM
Stella M. Grosso
I have lived with mental illness since I was seven years old. I went through years of hospitalizations, since the age of twelve. I finally got my life together and got on the correct medication that works. Now I attend San Bernardino Valley College, and they have excellent disability accommodations there that help me succeed. I have been out of the hospital for nearly four years and only taking two class at a time, This story inspired me to continue to keep going, no matter how bad my bipolar gets.

AUG, 31, 2016 12:27:07 PM
Jim wilder
What school does Ms. Baldwin s son go to? That's terrible about that schools attitude toward one who is challenged by mental illness

AUG, 29, 2016 03:22:44 AM
In 1990, after suffering a nervous breakdown, I was diagnosed w/ schizophrenia and PTSD. I would be hospitalized five times in a mental ward until I regained stability. During that time, I managed to return to my ivy league university and complete my degree. Afterwards, I worked part-time in retail, until I landed a full-time job in public health. I started two masters degrees (MPA and MSEd), although I have yet to complete them. Now, I work full-time as an education director.
All this to say that with the help of the ADA of 1990, I was able to acquire accommodations, such as extended time for tests, student loans, and part-time student status. Also, I maintained my medication regimen, even though I struggled at times with denial and suicidal thoughts. I also had the assistance and wonderful support of family, job coaches, therapists, nurses, social workers, counselors, psychiatrists, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
I have been able to stay out of the hospital for 16 years. My diagnosis has since changed to scizoaffective disorder, OCD, and bipolar disorder. Mental illness can be conquered with time, patience, and prayer. I have lived my entire adult life with mental illness, but it has made me a stronger, more humble, empathetic human being. Now, I just want to help others by telling my story.

AUG, 28, 2016 02:45:21 PM
Jessica Stretch
My son also was diagnosed with schizophrenia his junior year at a university. He has took a two year leave and went to a community collage while we worked to find a medication that he could function well on. I must say that the disability departments have been amazing where we live. My son has taken a couple more breaks from school but has returned to the university this semester with a lighter load. It may take a little longer but I'm certain he can complete college with the support he is getting. I just hope he can find a job and live independently after he gets his degree.

AUG, 27, 2016 04:39:32 PM
My 19 years old daughter was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, after one semester in college. She wants to go back and i support her decission, but not sure if she is ready. My question is how and who will determine she is ready- is it her psychiatrist who sees her once a month, therapist or herself? She was born with CP, had to overcome so much to be accepted to college, now she battles mental disorder- even harder for us to understand. I will do as much as I can to help her to be ready this time. I would appreciate any shared advice.

AUG, 25, 2016 01:13:31 PM
Suffering Parent
In the middle of a full blown manic episode, my son who was diagnosed with bipolar 1, a Junior in college, sent the dean an email telling her to change his status to 'drop out' from 'medical LOA'. The dean knew that he is mentally incompetent due to his health condition because she took him to the psych hospital and she knew that he is beginning to fall into another manic episode. In spite of her knowledge of his mental health condition, she used this email and processed it. During this manic episode, in a really bad dysphoric condition, he wrote a disturbing online post which listed everyone's name that he ever knew, and the college administrators pressed charge and he was jailed for a few months. He is in a half way house now. I am only hoping that he will be there as long as he is alive and not end up in the street again or in the jail again. I am in despair as much as much as he is in despair about his prospect for completing the college. He is a good student with a high GPA, but the relapse is causing behavioral problems. If the college does not allow him back, it seems I have only two options: Either leave him where he is without any hope until the end of his life, Or sue the college to re-enroll him on the grounds of ADA and his mental incompetence when he wrote the email about dropping out from college. His college seems to want him to just go away. He will ever dig his misery deeper and hopelessly until he dies. The Americans with Disability Act does not seem to apply to college students with mental health issues. This is yet another 'Parity' issue between Mental(brain) Health and Physical Health.

AUG, 25, 2016 11:51:01 AM
I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder a few years after graduating. I was unable to work for 11yrs after that. With the help of my psychiatrist and many other mental health professionals I was able to stabilize my symptoms to be able to return to college and complete a second degree. This was possible with the help of Vocational Rehab program and the support of the great folks at my university who helped in any way they could to help me be successful. Though I continue to struggle with symptoms I have been able to maintain a part-time job with an amazingly supportive company for 8 years. I have been very fortunate to find a company that supports me in every way and given me the opportunity to be successful. There was a time when I never would have thought I could be working again, not to mention be able to say I have not been hospitalized for over 2 years. The support I received from my University and employer certainly helped me to be on the road I am on now.

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.