By: Julia Cardoso
Mental Health in college can often be overlooked by students and faculty. Even though college counseling and disability centers exists, many student including myself are unware of how they could be helpful for someone who may find themselves struggling with their mental health. Studies have shown that when studying young adults who attend college and those who do not, there are little differences in the occurrence of mental illness between the groups. Young adults aged 18-24 who have are having health challenges, half of them are mental health related and the onset of the mental illness begins at the age of 24. When mental illness goes untreated for these students, it could impact academic performances, social relationships, and substance use. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges that many college students face. Starting college is already a tough transition but when a mental illness is involved it gets even more challenging. My own personal experience of having an anxiety disorder while enrolled in undergrad was probably the toughest challenge I went through.
Beginning my junior year of undergrad, I started to get really bad anxiety. Commuting to class on a crowded bus was the worst. Once I got to campus an overwhelming sense of anxiety just took over my body. The closer I got to my class the more I felt. My anxiety presented itself as heart palpitations, dizziness, and panic attacks. Sitting in class with all of those unbearable feelings was so difficult. At times I would go to the rest room just to calm myself down then just never made it back to class.
Passing my classes and graduating on time was really important to me but I knew I had to do something about this anxiety. At this point I was completely lost at what I should do next. I have already used up all of my excused absences, I didn’t know who to turn to and what resources were available to me. My first instinct was to look over my syllabus to see if there was anything mentioned there. I turned to the small paragraph that mentioned “Disability Services.” My first thoughts were “Is anxiety a disability?” “Do Disability services include mental health?”
My next step was to visit the disability center to see if I can get some of my questions answered. This is when hopelessness turned into hope. While at my college disability center I was told that I could get accommodations and support for having an anxiety disorder. Some of the accommodations that were offered to me were:
- Additional time on exams
- Private location to take exams
- Permission to record lectures
- Extended deadlines
- Allowing for an aide or helper
- Additional excused absences
This provided me with a great sense of relief, just knowing that there was help out there even though I didn’t necessarily need all of them. The disability counselor told me that in order to get these accommodations; I would have to get a letter from my doctor saying that I have an anxiety disorder and how it impacts my functioning. At this point I was getting quiet overwhelmed again. I didn’t ask and friends or family to help me with this because I felt like they would judge me or just wouldn’t understand.
A few days later I went to see my Primary Care Physician and I was able to get the letter I needed to access services at the disability center. This is a sample of the letter I used
Dear Disability Services:
I am a student with a disability. I need accommodations and academic adjustments to have full access to my education. Specifically, my disability limits me in ___________________________ ______________________________________________________________________________ (taking notes, writing, concentrating, hearing, seeing, etc.). In the past, these challenges have been accommodated with ________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________________ (note taker, smart pen, CART system, interpreter, etc.). So that you may better understand my disability-related academic needs, I am providing you with copies of my most recent IEP and/or Section 504 plan and evaluations from high school. I’ve also attached records from ____________________. In addition, I will be living in on-campus, student housing. I need accommodations for my disability in my housing. Specifically, I need __________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________________________ (permission to have a service animal in my room, a room located near the exit, a room located near a bathroom, permission to have an aide present in my room to assist with bathing and dressing, etc.). Please contact me so we can set up a meeting to discuss my request for accommodations and academic adjustments. I can be contacted by phone at ____________, or by e-mail at ____________. I look forward to hearing from you soon! Sincerely, ____________________ (your name
The disability center was able to excuse all of my absences that were anxiety related and encouraged me to share this with my professors. The process of talking to professors about my anxiety disorder was probably the toughest. I was afraid of stigma, of them looking at me different, of pity, all of those thought came into mind but I knew that passing their class was really important and I needed their support in order to do so. I also didn’t want them to think I was just skipping class because I didn’t care. I then went on to schedule an office hour meeting with all 3 of my professors. My anxiety started to rise again as I thought about all that could go wrong. I went into the first meeting with my Sociology professor and just laid everything out in the table. I told her that I have an anxiety disorder and that it has been really hard to make it to class. She was very understanding and asked what she could do to help. We also spoke about my final presentation which I was dreading since Day 1. She said she could help me practice and I could go first if that would lessen some of the anxiety.
The meeting with all of my professors went well. Some ended in tears but I felt really supported and I did not feel stigmatized because of my mental illness. I was also able to take one in my exams in a private room which helped me focus so much. This was really hard for me but just knowing that the professors were there to support me really helped.
My next stop was to access the counseling center. I never had a therapist before so I wasn’t sure how to go about this process as well. Some immediate thoughts that came to mind were: “What if someone seems me going into the counseling center”, “What if I see someone I know in there?”. The stigma that I felt came from cultural perceptions of mental health but also societal pressures that makes everyone feel like they have to have everything together. I finally went into the counseling center. I was able to complete paperwork and choose a date and time to meet with someone for next week.
The following week I met with my new therapist at the counseling center. We worked together till the end of the school year. I was able to learn ways to cope with my anxiety. I now had tools I can use when feeling anxious and my anxiety slowly decreased. Just having someone on campus I could talk to made all the difference. I was still anxious from time to time but having resources on campus made me feel comfortable about reaching out for help when my anxiety got too overwhelming. Through the use of the disability center, counseling center, and talking to professors, I was able to stay on track and graduate with the rest of my class. Asking for help with a mental illness is very hard and especially hard when barriers such as stigma and lack of awareness are a factor but taking that first step makes all the difference in someone’s recovery.
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