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A Diagnosis of Mental Illness Need Not End a College Career

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.”

By Marjorie Baldwin | Aug. 24, 2016

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.

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