Common Challenges for College Students with Psychiatric Disabilities

Not surprisingly, individuals with psychiatric disabilities experience challenges that others can’t always relate to or understand. And in some environments, those challenges can become particularly taxing. It’s important for those who don’t have personal experience with psychiatric conditions or disabilities to learn about the ways they change an individual’s experiences and affect their lives.

Being able to respond proactively to these challenges can help everyone — both those who have psychiatric disabilities and those who don’t. This piece will focus on the difficulties that one environment in particular creates for those with psychiatric disabilities: the college campus. Here are a few of the biggest challenges the college campus presents.

Psychiatric Disabilities Can Affect Cognitive Functions

Psychiatric conditions can vary widely in type, presentation, and severity. However, they almost always have something in common: they can adversely affect cognitive function. Psychiatric concerns and conditions can create difficult barriers to mental and emotional processes that others can easily accomplish or take for granted.

Obviously, this is a significant problem in an environmental environment like college, where cognitive functions are necessary to succeed in virtually any experience one might take part in while a college student. Cognitive functioning is obviously a necessary tool for performing academically.

New Social Environments or Experiences Can Present New Hurdles

For individuals with psychiatric conditions, social environments or scenarios can commonly cause stress or triggers. For some, noisy or high-stimulant situations can wreak havoc on balance and wellbeing. For others, crowds or meeting new people can create similar problems. Social anxiety can stand alone as a psychiatric disorder or accompany many others.

Attending traditional college courses usually includes dorm-style living, social expectations, in-person classrooms and lectures, commuting, eating in dining halls, and many more instances of complex or saturated social settings. For students with psychiatric disabilities, these can become nightmares or cause huge amounts of difficulty that can detract from their college experience.

Standardized Tests or Licensure Exams Can Create Difficulties that Inhibit Graduation or Employment

While some degree programs can be completed with accommodations for some of the learning or test-taking challenges students with psychiatric disabilities experience, other degree programs include highly standardized or official tests that are more difficult to adapt. Entering the nursing profession requires passing the NCLEX, a licensure exam required in all 50 states before being able to practice professionally. Educational degree programs require passing licensure exams before being able to teach that vary by state. And other industries or professions require similar prerequisites — law, architecture, pre-med, and more all have difficult examination requirements a student must satisfy before being able to advance into their careers.

For professions that are regulated by bodies or tests that are beyond an individual college institution’s purview, it can sometimes be much more difficult for a student with psychiatric disabilities to secure the academic support they need to be able to test well.

College Living Presents Unique Challenges for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities

Though the transition to independent or peer-surrounded living can take any student by surprise or require an amount of trial and error, the nature of many psychiatric disabilities can make this undertaking particularly difficult or sometimes nearly impossible for those who suffer from them. Tasks like maintaining cleanliness or appropriate living conditions can sometimes prove very challenging.

Remembering how to make meals or to purchase food or eat can be huge challenges for those with some types of psychiatric disorders. Sleep or physical activity needs, or habits can be particular and differ widely from those of other students. All these challenges and more can create or exacerbate difficult relationships with roommates, apartment mates, or residential staff.

Tips for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities Who Are Attending College

If you have a psychiatric disability and are either already attending college or are planning to attend college, there are a number of ways you can help mitigate these challenges for yourself and navigate the college environment in a way that can allow you to thrive. Here are a few tips to help you take control of your college experience:

Have Patience with Yourself

The temptation to compare yourself and your experiences to the students around you is tantalizing. But doing this is unfair to yourself. Your experience is different. You may need to make certain accommodations someone else might not need. You may also bring resilience, perspective, and more to the table that they do not. Don’t rush yourself and don’t feel pressure to make your story or experience look like anyone else’s.

Be Aware of Your Needs and Triggers

Have you learned that large crowds make you anxious? Do you know that you struggle to study when others are in your room? The more you are aware of your needs (as well as which types of experiences are not good for your psyche or performance), the better able you are to act strategically and avoid situations that will cause you to be less than your best. Be aware and curious as you navigate your college experience.

Take note of the times, situations, scenarios, and relationships when you feel your worst or when you are most aware of experiencing your psychiatric disability symptoms. This is hugely important learning and can help you stay out of situations and settings that can cause trouble or difficulty.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

Virtually every college campus has ample resources available for a wide variety of needs and accommodations. Sadly, sometimes the students that need these services most struggle through their college experiences without ever realizing they can utilize them. It is never too late to find out whether you can avail of help from your institution. Whether it be assistance in test-taking, for your dorm life, or for a wide spread of other needs, you won’t know until you ask.

Speak to student success, your RA, a professor, a mentor on campus, or your advisor to find out the right person to talk to. Receiving support from one’s institution can often create night-and-day change for students with psychiatric disabilities.