Anxiety, Mental Illness

6 Tips for students with mental illness

By Caitlin B.

Do you get the feeling that more young people are struggling with mental illness now than in the past? If you do, you’re not alone.

Today, it’s clear that rates of mental illness are steadily increasing, particularly among children and teens. The reasons behind this increase are heavily debated. Researchers and journalists have blamed everything from social media to smartphones to political upheaval. Whatever the cause, more young people than ever are struggling with anxiety and depression. This can have a profound impact on their academic performance.

I know from personal experience how tough it can be to keep up with your studies when you’re struggling with mental illness. I developed a severe anxiety disorder in middle school. Walking into school each morning was enough to trigger intense panic attacks. Despite receiving treatment, I couldn’t manage to stay in the classroom for a full eight hours. I wound up finishing high school through an independent-study program.

It is ironic, perhaps, that I later decided to become a teacher! But I enjoyed college and graduate school so much that I chose to get my teaching credential. During my years as a high school English teacher, I often encountered students who were suffering from some form of mental illness. It was painful to watch students struggle the way I once had. It’s not easy to grapple with mental health issues and finish your education at the same time.

If you’re a student who is currently struggling with mental health issues—or the parent of one—then you know that mental illness can interfere with a student’s ability to keep up with their schoolwork. Here are six tips for making the most of your education while dealing with mental illness.

Know your rights

While laws may vary slightly from state to state, all students in the U.S. have certain rights. Public schools are required to help students with medical issues receive the support they need to be successful.

Are you having a hard time keeping up with your coursework because of your mental illness? You have the right to ask your school for help. Parents of a K-12 student at a public school can ask to have their child evaluated for an IEP or 504 plan. Students with these plans are entitled to special support services. IEP and 504 plans may also allow students to make alternate arrangements for completing assignments or tests.

While IEP and 504 plans don’t exist at the college level, many colleges do offer a wide variety of assistance programs to students with documented medical conditions. Don’t be afraid to ask for the support you need!

Need time off? Ask your school about your options!

If you’re really struggling with your mental illness, you may need to take some time away from school to focus on your health. Students struggling with mental health problems are often tempted to drop out. But dropping out can have permanent consequences for your academic record. If you’re no longer able to keep up with your classes, reach out to your school counselor or counseling department. Ask what your options are. 

Your school may allow you to take a medical leave of absence. A leave of absence lets you withdraw from your classes without receiving a failing grade on your transcripts. Your school might also be able to make special arrangements so that you can finish your coursework from home or from a medical facility.

Many schools also offer independent-study or distance-learning programs that take place online. If you’re able to complete your schoolwork but can’t attend classes, switching to an online program may allow you to finish your degree from home.

Be honest with your teachers/professors

The best thing you can do if you’re struggling? Talk to your teachers. Most teachers go into the profession because they’re hoping to make a positive difference in their students’ lives. As a result, they’re eager to help students wherever they can. If your mental illness is affecting your classroom performance, considering reaching out to your teacher or professor.

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. If you’re unable to do classroom presentations or struggling to make it to your classes, let your teachers know what they can do to support you. Ask if there are alternate assignments or makeup work you can complete. If you’re embarrassed to speak with your teachers about your medical issues, ask your school’s counseling department for guidance. They may be able to contact your teachers on your behalf or provide you with documentation you can pass along to your instructors.

Remember that teachers aren’t mind readers. They can’t help you if they don’t know you need help! If a medical problem is keeping you from succeeding, be sure to let your teachers know. Ask what kind of help they can provide. 

Plan ahead and stay organized

Being a student can be stressful, particularly during certain times of the year. Midterms and finals can leave you feeling swamped. It’s easy to become overwhelmed when you have many projects due at once. You can avoid some exam-related stress and anxiety by planning ahead.

When your semester starts, gather up the due-dates for all important projects and exams. Make sure to collect due-dates for each of your courses. Then fill these dates in on your calendar or planner. Think about how long it will take you to finish each project and prepare for exams. Use your calendar to plan when you’ll get started and to track your weekly progress.

If you suspect that you’ll need to ask for extensions or special arrangements, it’s best to do so in advance. Many teachers will be glad to offer scheduling accommodations if they’re requested early on in the semester but won’t offer any last-minute extensions. Be sure to ask as soon as you can.

Don’t overextend yourself

Are you a “high achiever”? Join the club! I spent most of my high school and college years worrying about my grades. I often pushed myself much too hard and wound up more stressed than ever. This stress set off my anxiety and before I knew it, I’d be struggling with constant panic attacks. 

Try not to take on more than you can handle. You might be tempted to enroll in four AP courses or sign up for three extracurriculars, but you need to allow yourself time to relax and recover. When you set up your schedule for the school year, make sure you aren’t biting off more than you can chew.

If you spread yourself too thin, you might end up doing poorly in all of your classes or activities. Remember: it’s better to enroll in just a few classes or activities and give them your best effort.  

Be patient with yourself

It can be difficult to have patience with yourself and your illness. It’s all too easy to focus on our shortcomings, rather than our accomplishments.

My anxiety sometimes makes it difficult for me to finish tasks on time. When I’m experiencing severe anxiety, it can be paralyzing. I wind up procrastinating or backing out of things I’ve promised to do.

When this happens, it’s easy to feel ashamed or feel like I’m a “failure”. I often have to remind myself that anxiety is a medical issue, not a personal failing. Sometimes medical problems prevent us from accomplishing a goal. It can be a disappointment, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

It’s not a race

When something goes wrong in our lives, it can be tempting to take a negative perspective. We may feel like our future is “ruined” forever. But people complete their educational goals in many different ways and at different paces. It’s always possible to change schools, take some time off, or re-enroll at a later date. Your degree or diploma will be just as valid, even if it takes you a bit longer to complete it.

As technology expands, new types of academic programs are being created each year. Many of these programs—particularly those centered around online or self-paced learning—are a great fit for students with mental health issues. Explore your options to find the academic program that works best for you!

Have you tried any non-traditional academic programs? How has your mental illness affected your education? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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