Mental Health Issues and the College Planning Process

College MatchPoint's founder Lisa Bain Carlton and Andrew Bryant of TrekEpic share their insights on the college planning process for students with mental health issues:

A referring psychologist once explained to a young independent educational consultant (IEC) that one of the greatest challenges in consulting is to help parents and students understand that they are dealing with a process. Simply put, that process is exactly what IECs guide their clients through, but its fluid state makes it the hardest element for parents to navigate. Time and time again, nothing has proven to be truer than the difficulty of facing all the unknowns, particularly for our clients and their parents who have experienced emotional, behavioral, or learning challenges.

Parallel Paths

In our work with students who have significant learning differences, as well as those who have mental health considerations, we often describe the process of college admission and selection as having two parallel paths. The first is straightforward: the exploration of postsecondary opportunities, university or otherwise; a standard approach to applications (and all the moving pieces of that puzzle—activity résumé, essays, and so on); college visits; and, ultimately, the selection process.

The second path is the constant monitoring and awareness of the challenges that the student and the family system undergo throughout the timeframe we work with them. We often tell parents that what we know now about their child and his or her college admissions may very well change—sometimes for the better and other times in ways that will demand problem solving and a change in planning strategy. In other words, what we know in October could be very different in March.

Alongside these parallel paths is the very likely reality that the process for challenged or struggling adolescents might look quite different than the more typical student’s. Guiding such students through the college admission process is generally less linear, and the “order of operations” can end up being rearranged because of differing circumstances.

The endgame in advising those students is not just sending them off to the college of their choice, but having them embark on their journey with a support system. The design of that support system must be a collaborative effort between the consultant and student, with parents in advisement. Having served as both a parent and a case manager through the years, I know that the letting go experience for parents can be complicated for any number of reasons.

As it turns out, an IEC is in the ideal position to serve as the architect for designing a student’s postsecondary support plan and helping parents and students through that transitional stage. Our knowledge base and understanding of resources enable us to bring into play—with agreement between the student and parents—the components needed to design a structure within which a student can thrive in college. Students can also rely on the supports of that structure when circumstances change for them. Understanding both campus and community resources is the first step in this aspect of the planning process.

Campus Resources

Approximately two-thirds of students who have mental health issues also have a diagnosable learning difference or other consideration that may result in accommodations. That means that psychological and educational testing are key to a full understanding of a student’s personal profile. On the way to better self-advocacy, IECs can directly utilize such testing as an educational tool to help students learn more about their challenges and how they can overcome obstacles. Making sure that students understand—in language they relate to—the relationship between their mental health needs and how they are affected as learners is vital to bringing a balanced approach to their academic life on campus. Setting a support plan in place must include registration with the Office of Disability Services on the student’s college campus once enrolled. Whether a student is qualified under psychiatric disability guidelines, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, other designation, or a combination of categories, the willingness to engage in accommodations can make all the difference in a student’s support plan, especially when facing challenges or episodes that interfere with his or her studies.

Emotional Support

In addition, there must be a clear plan for ongoing emotional support. College counseling centers can be great resources for students; however, most students entering college with a history of mental health issues have grown more sophisticated in their needs and in their expectations of providers. As a result, identifying a therapist within the community who has experience working with college students is a better working model than relying solely on campus counseling services. That designated point person can work with the student to coordinate and assess how the support plan is working and how the professional relationships the student engages in are going on a week-to-week basis. For those IECs who extend their services beyond high school graduation, this can be a primary role, essentially shifting from plan architect to orchestrator. IECs who take on this role can expect to touch base with students on a weekly basis, monitoring how the support plan is working and being available when concerns arise.

Academic Calendars

Students who experience a wide range of mental health issues need to address the same set of considerations as more-typical college students, although any number of those areas can be magnified. For example, consider the various university academic calendars and how they might affect different types of students. Quarter-term campuses, for example, can be a good fit for students with mental health issues because the shorter rotation of classes allows for more-frequent change and potentially fewer classes to manage. The downside of quarters is how quickly a student can fall behind if they are missing classes or struggling. As with any planning process, most students can benefit from being flexible and creative with college schedules—this is especially pertinent for those who experience mental health issues.

Customized Experience

Beyond coordinating support services, the goal is not to find ways for students to “fit in” or take the conventional route as college undergraduates. Any opportunity to customize the student’s experience ought to be taken. That may include a reduced schedule for some students, helping them balance campus life with courses, activities, and work. Attending summer courses for credit can help students stay both engaged and on track as they work toward graduation. For some students being close to family can be a huge support. Equally important, opportunities that benefit more normative college students are amplified for those with mental health challenges, so students should be encouraged to pursue study abroad, independent study, and other opportunities to focus on areas of interest while balancing completion of core requirements. Helping students curate a personalized college experience is a key job for those with roles in the student’s college life.

Successful Outcomes

As IECs working with adolescents who have mental health considerations as well as possible learning differences, we operate beyond just the admission and selection process—we maintain the parallel awareness of how students are developing, work through struggles that may or may not have been anticipated, and understand students’ needs as they grow in some areas and continue to falter in others. Learning how to best serve our unique students—and their differing needs—is a process in and of itself. It is through engaging in this hard work of process that all parties—students, parents, and IECs—can create successful outcomes.