Navigating College with Depression: Advice for New Students

Back to school with Easterseals. Photos of disabled children in school, with friends and with teachers.

by Mids Meinberg

Going to college represents a major shift in every young student’s life. Now considered by society to be an adult, a freshman experiences an unprecedented freedom in managing their schedule and their life. This greater freedom is then coupled with an increased difficulty in coursework, leading to a large amount of stress. To further complicate things, turning eighteen is also when a lot of mental illnesses begin to present themselves more powerfully. This increased stress, these newly emergent symptoms, and the relative absence of a support network can make the first year of college nearly impossible to navigate for some.

A person with short hair wearing glasses and a sweater vest, smilingThis is the situation that I found myself in during my first year of college. I went an ocean away from my family and friends to a prestigious school. My depression was making itself known in a way far more intense than anything I had ever experienced before, which was coupled with finding the academics of college a struggle, a first in my life. The sense of failure began early in the semester and continued to snowball throughout the year, with every failed test and missed assignment piling into an avalanche of guilt and remorse that I lacked the tools to escape from.

I flunked out of Rice University at the end of that year and the repercussions of that failure have lingered with me ever since. I have struggled both economically and mentally because of my inability to get a degree. Rice offers a need-based free ride scholarship to all students attending, paying for all of their expenses above what the family can be reasonably expected to contribute. I wound up attending other schools and accumulating debt in my effort to complete education, debt that I would not have had if I completed my education at Rice. In addition, the shame I felt, however unreasonable, has remained with me, intensified by and intensifying my depression.

My situation did not have to unfold the way it did. Resources are available in most colleges for those that need them, but these resources can only be accessed if you ask for them. It would have helped a lot if there were those in the community who could see how I was flailing, how I was unable to meet the demands of the coursework, and were willing to take that first step in helping me to get the aid that I needed. Instead, I allowed the compounding guilt to make me think that I was too late to ask for help, even when there was still time to turn things around.

A crucial understanding that it has taken me decades to realize is that my failures were not my fault. It wasn’t a lack of academic preparation or a lack of “intelligence” or a lack of drive that led to my failures. My failures were rooted in my disability coming head-to-head with structures that were built to inhibit disabled people from succeeding. Indeed, so much of the cultural constructions around “laziness” are built upon ableism and a failure to understand how disability affects the ability of a person to do work in the same way as a nondisabled person.

Now, just because higher education is structurally and systemically built upon ableist principles, this does not mean that the individuals working within academia are inherently ableist. I found a lot of success in my later academic career in speaking directly with professors about my failings and struggles. Being clear in why and how I was struggling led to a greater understanding from my professors and a willingness on their part to meet me halfway to ensure that I was able to achieve the success that we both wanted out of my time in the course.

Not every professor is going to be so welcoming, but there is no harm in making the attempt. A professor refusing to help is a sign that they are not someone who you want to take courses with in the future. In that case, dropping the class might make the most sense. While dropping courses feels like a major failure, it’s merely a re-evaluation of your position and the ability to get some breathing room. One of the things I struggled with heavily in the beginning of my academic career was taking an overloaded course load in an attempt to finish college earlier. A slower but steadier course load is much more likely to achieve success for any student, but especially for any disabled student considering the extra challenges posed by higher education.

A tall building, historical looking, on a college campus. The building has a big archway.

Rice University

In addition to these one-on-one approaches, there are additional tools that can help a disabled student achieve success in higher education.

First, most colleges and universities have programs to help disabled students with their specific accommodations. Researching the options available at any school and then using them can result in removing a lot of barriers. While these options will rarely help with the laziness myth, every advantage can be useful.

For those with mental illness, counseling options are usually available, which can include access to medication. While new students with newly intensified mental illnesses may struggle with accepting counseling and medication, the impact on one’s success not just in school but in life can be life saving. Thankfully, the shame around therapy has decreased since my time in college, but you should not allow shame to stop you from seeking these vital aids.

Second, most colleges have tutoring services available for all students. Again, shame and doubt may keep a student from pursuing these options, especially students who had excelled in high school, but it is important to remember that the use of these services does not reflect a personal failing but rather a need to overcome ableist structures. This tutoring can serve a vital function in helping a student to structure and order their time on campus – something that can be a huge barrier for students with mental illnesses.

Third, disabled students can form study groups with classmates in order to handle homework assignments and prepare for tests. Even if you have more barriers to overcome, higher education is difficult for every student new to it. By working together, classmates can find the ability to succeed despite these new difficulties. In addition, these study groups can serve as vital support networks and the start of new friendships which can help anyone to achieve their goals in higher education.

If I had pursued any of these options when I first started college, I would have found my experience far easier and likely would not have struggled as I have for so long. Hopefully this advice can help others get the help that I didn’t and make college a surmountable challenge.

Mids Meinberg is a writer and game designer working out of New Jersey. They have an AA in Creative Writing from Brookdale Community College.


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