On this page

Back to top

Graduate School with a Mental Illness: A Guide to Success

Living with a mental illness doesn’t need to keep you from pursuing a master’s degree. Learn how to overcome common obstacles in graduate school and what resources can help you be successful.

If you’re considering attending grad school and have a mental illness, you certainly are not alone. In 2022, a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders estimated that over 60% of college students are living with a mental health issue. With the proper support and self-care strategies, earning an advanced degree is a realistic goal. We’ve put together this guide to address the challenges of studying for an advanced degree while dealing with a mental illness and share resources to help you succeed.

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” This can include diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood disorders including depression, and phobias.

Some students with mental illnesses have symptoms that make attendance, studying, or cognition more difficult. Because of this, it’s essential to take advantage of all the resources available to you. Read on for self-care strategies, on-campus services, and other resources to help you succeed.

Common Types of Mental Illness in Graduate Schools

No two people have the same experience with mental illness. No matter the diagnosis, each person’s symptoms look different and require different management strategies. However, because there are overlaps in symptoms and behavior, broader diagnosis categories are useful for general descriptions of behavior and identifying possible treatments.

Your best option is to work closely with a mental health professional to diagnose and treat mental illness. To get you pointed in the right direction, we’ve described the ten most common types of mental illness, the specific challenges they present to aspiring grad students, and some strategies and resources that can contribute to success, especially when paired with counseling, therapy, medication, or other treatment by a mental health professional.

Anxiety/Panic Disorders

  • Symptoms: Many people experience occasional anxiety or even panic attacks. They can have symptoms such as sweating, rapid heart rate, feeling light headed, panic, breathlessness, etc. Some people liken the feeling to being in fight or flight mode. Symptoms and triggers vary depending on severity or the individual. Many people with anxiety disorders consistently experience higher levels of anxiety that often worsen over time. A person is typically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when their anxiety or panic attacks interfere with their relationships, work, or other daily activities.
  • Impact on Master’s Students: Students with anxiety or panic disorders may find that their condition makes it difficult to concentrate or retain information. Additionally, some students may find that everyday situations, including attending class, presentations, exams, or meetings, trigger their anxiety.
  • Success Strategies: Students with anxiety/panic disorders can manage their symptoms by ensuring they have their tools ready. This means identifying potential triggers and having a plan in place to manage their anxiety. For some, this includes breathing exercises, rehearsing the situation in advance, or engaging in preemptive self-care. But since you can’t always predict your triggers, it’s also essential to have some coping strategies in your back pocket. Think about what works in the moment, make a list for yourself, and pass it along to supportive people in your life.
  • Resources: The Anxiety & Depression Association of America has an extensive library of resources to help you make a game plan to manage anxiety and panic disorders as you embark on your studies. On the site, you can hear from experts and community members and connect with other support resources.

Depression

  • Symptoms: People with depression experience a wide range of symptoms, including sadness, hopelessness, decreased interest in hobbies or relationships, changes in appetite, and unexplained aches and pains. In some cases, depression can lead a person to consider or attempt suicide. A depression diagnosis can coincide with major life or environmental changes or as a result of another health condition. However, people of all ages and circumstances experience depression.
  • Impact on Master’s Students: Depression symptoms can affect motivation, focus, and interest in engaging with daily activities. Because of this, students managing depression may struggle to attend class and keep up with assignments.
  • Success Strategies: Make sure you have support in place. If your symptoms increase in severity, it may be difficult to reach out for help. Plan regular check-ins with your healthcare provider, family, and supportive friends. In addition, consider using a mood tracker to record how you feel over time. Finally, be sure to register with your school’s disability services office and get accommodations in place in case you find yourself struggling with deadlines or attendance.
  • Important Note: If you or someone in your life is at risk of self-harm or suicide, reach out immediately to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (in the US) or through the chat feature on their website.
  • Resources: Students Against Depression has a broad range of resources specifically for students experiencing depression or anxiety and those who support them.

Bipolar Disorder

  • Symptoms: Strong shifts in mood, energy levels, focus, and participation in daily life and relationships characterize bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder, to varying degrees, experience manic and depressive episodes that can last days or weeks. Symptoms of manic episodes include high energy levels, outsized self-confidence, sleeplessness, irritability, and jumpiness. Depressive episodes closely mirror the symptoms of depression described above. However, some people experience these episodes more severely than others, and the duration of the episodes vary widely.
  • Impact on Master’s Students: Students with bipolar disorder may have trouble establishing a routine or study schedule, making it difficult to attend class or turn in assignments consistently. Students who manage their illness using medication may find that medication side effects contribute to academic challenges.
  • Success Strategies: People with bipolar disorder, especially those taking medication, should be in regular contact with a healthcare provider. In addition, some evidence shows that cognitive behavioral therapy can help patients manage their episodes.
  • Resources: Stanford University’s School of Medicine maintains a wide-ranging resource page for people with bipolar disorder that includes personal narratives, legal and social resources, and mental health service information.

PTSD

  • Symptoms: A person with PTSD cannot recover from a traumatic event. They may experience flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, disrupted sleep, and anxiety symptoms for an extended period. It’s important to note that not all people who experience a traumatic event go on to develop PTSD.
  • Impact on Master’s Students: Students with PTSD may struggle with information retention, anxiety, concentration, and avoidant behavior. These challenges can make it difficult to complete assignments, focus during class, or feel secure in some on-campus settings.
  • Success Strategies: Be sure to register with disability services so your accommodations are in place in case of a severe episode. Have routines in place to help you manage day-to-day stress and identify strategies to help you feel secure and calm when your symptoms are aggravated.
  • Resources: The Sidran Institute works to advocate for people with PTSD. Their website hosts up-to-date information related to the science of trauma, treatment opportunities, and resources for people with PTSD.

Schizophrenia

  • Symptoms: People with schizophrenia experience three groups of symptoms described as psychotic, negative, and cognitive. Psychotic symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, and illogical thought patterns. Negative symptoms mirror those of depression, including difficulty focusing, struggles with motivation, and withdrawal from daily life. Finally, cognitive symptoms might present as challenges in processing and applying information.
  • Impact on Master’s Students: Psychotic episodes interfere with class attendance and impact interpersonal relationships. Negative symptoms make managing one’s workload or attending class difficult. Cognitive symptoms mean that a student might struggle with regular class formats and readings.
  • Success Strategies: Many students with schizophrenia benefit from accommodations such as assistive technology and extended or distraction-free testing. Students with schizophrenia should maintain regular contact with their healthcare provider and may benefit from medication or therapeutic intervention. It can also be helpful to engage family and trusted peers by asking them to check in and to keep an eye out for increasing symptoms.
  • Resources: The Schizophrenia & Psychosis Action Alliance maintains a number of support groups for people with schizophrenia and their loved ones. The site also contains valuable resources for self-care and treatment options.

Eating Disorders

  • Symptoms: Eating disorders are characterized by intense preoccupations with food, body weight, and physical appearance. This is generally accompanied by emotional distress and sudden shifts in eating behaviors. While eating disorders vary widely, the most common forms include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
  • Impact on Master’s Students: Students with eating disorders may find that an intense focus on food and body image distracts them from their other work. Additionally, some people find that their disordered eating can be triggered by stress, which is ever-present during grad school. If a student’s eating disorder involves food restriction, they may struggle to find the energy and focus to study.
  • Success Strategies: Techniques for managing eating disorders are highly individualized. What works for one person may trigger disordered eating in another. Because of this, it’s essential to work with a healthcare provider to develop a strategy that works for you. Additionally, you can create a routine to manage stress and tools to avoid or cope during triggering situations.
  • Resources: The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders is dedicated to providing tools and treatments to people with eating disorders. Their services include a toll-free helpline, free webinars, and organized support groups.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

  • Symptoms: People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) struggle with obsessive, intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety or recurring behaviors that they must repeat compulsively. People have different combinations of obsessive and compulsive behaviors; some have motor tics that cause sudden, repetitive movements. People are diagnosed with OCD when their behaviors start to impact their daily lives or cause mental distress. It’s important to know that people with OCD don’t have control over their thoughts or behaviors and generally don’t derive pleasure from them.
  • Impact on Master’s Students: OCD may make it difficult for students to focus or attend class. Repetitive actions and intrusive thoughts can also present challenges for studying and information retention.
  • Success Strategies: Many students with OCD benefit from accommodations provided by their disability services office, including extended or distraction-free testing and assistive technology or a note taker. Some people with OCD benefit from medical or therapeutic intervention. As a rule, all students with OCD should meet with their healthcare providers to discuss how the rigors of grad school might affect their symptoms and develop strategies to manage their conditions.
  • Resources: The International OCD Foundation can connect you with support groups, local treatment providers, up-to-date resources, and community-building opportunities.

Personality Disorders

  • Symptoms: Generally speaking, the term “personality disorder” refers to people whose internal and external behaviors are dramatically inconsistent with cultural norms. A key characteristic of this diagnosis is that their behaviors cause them distress or impact their ability to participate in daily life. The most common type of personality disorder is borderline personality disorder, characterized by volatile moods and actions.
  • Impact on Master’s Students: Personality disorders make building relationships with peers and instructors challenging. A personality disorder can also affect focus and motivation, depending on one’s specific symptoms.
  • Success Strategies: Personality disorders can be extremely difficult for an individual to manage independently. They can also be challenging to treat effectively. However, promising new therapeutic and medical interventions are emerging. The best bet for a student with a personality disorder is to work closely with a mental health specialist.
  • Resources: The National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder maintains an extensive multimedia resource library for people with personality disorders to learn about their condition and strategies to manage it. In addition, there’s an extensive section on the site for the family and loved ones of people with personality disorders.

How an Online Master’s Degree Can Help

If you’re living with a mental illness, attending grad school online may help eliminate some challenges. Online graduate schools offer the same quality of education as a traditional, in-person program. But online programs also provide additional flexibility when it comes to how and when you study and they offer more control over your environment. Simply put, online graduate programs allow you to pursue your studies on your own terms.

These are some of the benefits of online master’s degree programs that help students with mental illnesses:

Flexibility of Coursework

Most online courses are set up in an asynchronous format. This means that you don’t have to log in at a specific time to attend a lecture. Rather, you are provided with reading and other assignments through an online platform. This setup means you can study when and where you feel your best. Although you’ll still have regular deadlines to keep up with, online courses can reduce stress since you’re not required to interact socially when you’re not feeling 100%. Plus, with online classes, you won’t have to deal with the stress of commuting and the hustle and bustle of navigating campus.

Flexible Pacing

Online graduate programs are designed to be flexible. This can make a huge difference for students with mental illnesses. We’ve already discussed the benefits of online asynchronous classes, but the possibilities don’t end there. Online graduate programs are often much more open to students who cannot or do not want to study full-time. This means that you can decide how much work you are up for on a semester-by-semester basis. You can even take full semesters off if you need a break. Additionally, a few online schools offer self-paced master’s degrees. This means that there are no deadlines. Instead, you work through the curriculum on your own timeline and take breaks when needed.

Create an Optimal Learning Environment

If you find new or group settings distracting, anxiety-inducing, or overstimulating, online classes can be a great alternative to in-person degree programs. When you study online, you can do so from a safe and comfortable space. By having complete control over your study environment, you’ll be able to give your coursework your full attention, which increases the odds of success in your classes. Plus, if you find yourself having issues during your study sessions, you’ll already be in a space with everything you need to manage your symptoms.

More Connected to Professors

While it may seem counterintuitive, online classes can offer more opportunities to develop a one-on-one connection with your professors. Rather than competing for attention in a classroom, you can connect with your instructor in a more focused way. In addition, online grad programs tend to take pride in their small class sizes and instructor accessibility. So, you’ll have options to connect with your professor through email, the online learning platform, or real-time phone or video meetings.

5 Must-Do Tips for Students with a Mental Illness

No one is going to pretend that grad school is easy. The stress and workload that accompany an advanced degree program can be a lot to take on, especially when you’re living with a mental illness. Before starting your program, be sure to develop a plan to manage school stress, care for your mental health, and seek help when you need it. If you’re proactive about self-care, you’ll reduce the risk of a crisis down the road.

Tip #1: Create Support Systems

Even the strongest, most independent students need help sometimes. Knowing that you can reach out to someone makes a huge difference when you’re struggling with your mental health. Now is the time to build your support network—before you need it. Think about who you’re comfortable talking to about your mental illness and put them on speed dial. Talk with your counselor or another care provider about your upcoming studies and schedule regular check-ins. If you’re moving to attend school, look for clubs or off-campus groups that fit your interests. This can be a great way to make new friends and build community in your new town.

Tip #2: Rest and Practice Self-Care

The workload of grad school can feel never-ending, and you might be tempted to bury yourself in your studies around the clock. However, this strategy can be counterproductive and harmful to your health (mental or otherwise). Instead, set aside time for rest and self-care. This includes carving out time for meals, exercise, socializing, or other nonschool tasks. Keep some easy, healthy recipes on hand to ensure your nutrition isn’t neglected. Consider sticking to a specific bedtime to ensure you start your day well-rested.

Tip #3: Reduce Stress

Easier said than done, right? That might be true, but there are some strategies that can help you reduce stress. First, reread the section about self-care above and commit it to memory. Next, stay organized. Keep an up-to-date calendar with your appointments and assignments. Review it regularly so that obligations don’t sneak up on you. Another strategy is to take stock of the minor stressors in your life and see what you can do to address them. For example, if your Tupperware cabinet landslides on you every time you try to pack lunch, an hour spent getting organized can reduce the stress of your morning routine.

Tip #4: Monitor Symptoms and General Health

Time seems to blend together when we’re busy. When managing a mental illness, this phenomenon can make it challenging to keep track of changes or new symptoms as they emerge. Sometimes this means we don’t pick up on an issue until it becomes severe. To avoid this, establish a daily practice of checking in with yourself and monitoring your health. This can be as in-depth as you want it to be. At a minimum, take a few breaths, check in with your body, and write down any major changes in your life and how you’re feeling physically and mentally. Mood-tracking apps can be a big help, but an old-school notebook can do the trick as well.

Tip #5: Use Assistive Technology

If there’s any technology that helps you manage your stress, organize your workload, or learn better in class, take advantage of it. We’ll discuss in-classroom assistive technology later in this guide, but consider technologies that help during your study time and in your personal time. For example, consider noise-blocking headphones or white noise to help you focus. Screen reading technology is a lifesaver if reading is challenging or tiring. Many instructors are happy to meet over Zoom if in-person meetings are difficult for you. Zoom, FaceTime, or other video chat services are also a great way to stay in touch with your support system.

How to Find Help: On- and Off-Campus Options

Successfully pursuing a graduate degree while managing a mental illness requires you to have a game plan, know your resources, and take advantage of the tools available to help you succeed. Not all schools offer the exact same resources; do your research and see what options are available. Don’t forget your off-campus support team, either. If you’re working with your doctor, therapist, or other professionals to manage your condition, keep them in the loop and schedule regular check-ins throughout the year.

If you’re moving to attend grad school, see if your providers can work with you remotely or help you establish a new care network before you arrive in your new town. Even if you’re managing your mental illness effectively with minimal outside support, you’re headed down a new path with new challenges. Knowing where to go if you’re struggling makes a huge difference. Read through the resources below to know where to go to find support.

Know Your Rights

Students with mental illnesses are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These laws and regulations are designed to guarantee equal access to education for people with psychiatric disabilities. As a student with a mental illness, your rights include, but are not limited to:

  • Freedom from discrimination. A school cannot consider your disability as a factor in acceptance and enrollment.
  • Accessibility. Buildings and services must be accessible to all students regardless of their disability status.
  • Reasonable accommodation. Your school must have a process in place to determine and provide accommodations for students with documented disabilities.

On-campus or Online Resources

  • Disability Services: This department manages accommodations for students with a broad range of physical and mental conditions that limit course accessibility. When you submit documentation of your mental illness to the disability services department, a counselor will work with you and your professors to identify accommodations that will help you succeed in your coursework.
  • Student Services: The student services offices provide a host of services to support you. These can include tutoring, advising, and career planning. Some schools’ student services programs also offer specific programming for students with disabilities alongside other efforts to support diversity and inclusion. If you’re struggling with your academic responsibilities or in search of supportive communities, student services is a great place to start.
  • Counseling Services: Many schools offer on-site or virtual counseling services for students who are struggling with their mental health. Depending on the department’s capacity, your school’s counseling services may provide long-term care or a limited number of visits for students in crisis. Additionally, they can help you obtain documentation to register with disability services.
  • Student Health Center: The services available through the student health center differ widely among schools. Generally, they are dedicated to students’ physical health. At some schools, these centers cover all of the services of a regular doctor’s office, including prescribing and refilling medications. Other schools may even offer urgent care services.

How to Seek Accommodations for Your Mental Illness

The most important thing you can do to set yourself up for success in grad school is to make sure that your accommodations are in place before you need them. While typically the process isn’t lengthy, it does require a bit of legwork. By preparing your accommodations in advance, you’ll be able to focus entirely on your health needs in a crisis with the knowledge that your academics won’t suffer during that time.

You may need to register with disability services through the school’s disability services office and:

Provide Proof of Disability

Usually, schools have you submit a letter from your healthcare provider documenting your disability. This can come from your general practitioner, psychiatrist, licensed clinical social worker, the university’s counseling or health services, or any other licensed provider you work with to manage your mental health. The letter must be sufficiently detailed to establish your disability status. Rutgers University has an excellent overview of its documentation policies to help you get an idea of the requirements. Understandably, disclosing your mental health condition to your school can feel nerve-wracking. These disclosures are strictly regulated by state and federal laws to protect your privacy. Your documentation or diagnosis will not be disclosed to anyone outside of the disability services office.

Meet With the Disability Services Office

During this meeting, a disability services counselor will go over your documentation and identify accommodations that can help support you in your studies. We’ll cover specific accommodations later in this guide, however a few common ones for people with mental illnesses include assignment extensions and a more flexible attendance policy. Before your meeting, consider how your condition may impact your studies and what types of interventions would be helpful to you. Come prepared with your own ideas. Sitting down with a stranger to discuss your mental health needs can be stressful, but remember that disability services offices are there to help you succeed. By utilizing these services, you’re ensuring that you have the tools to manage your mental health and academic obligations effectively.

Notify Your Professors

At the beginning of each semester, your instructors should be notified of your accommodations. Usually, the disability services office takes care of notifications, but in some cases, you may be given an official letter to pass along. To be clear, these notifications aren’t the same as the more detailed documentation of your disability that you submitted to the disability services office. Instead, these notifications simply state that the office has deemed you eligible for a specific set of accommodations. Your instructor won’t receive information about your diagnosis or particular circumstances. It’s a good idea to check in with your instructors at the beginning of the term to make sure they’ve received your accommodation notification. If they have any questions, your instructor can contact the disability services office to clarify your accommodations. You aren’t required to disclose any information about your diagnosis or circumstances to your instructors.

Send Reminders

Depending on your accommodations and school policy, you may need to get in touch with your instructor when you are using accommodations such as extended deadlines or additional absences. In other cases, simply reach out to the disability services office and they will contact your professors. If a professor isn’t complying with your accommodations, remember that they are human too and may have simply forgotten. A quick verbal or email reminder should do the trick. However, if you encounter an instructor who is repeatedly or willfully ignoring your accommodations, contact the disability services office and a representative will intervene on your behalf.

Typical Accommodation Options

The disability services office has a wide array of accommodations available to help you manage your mental health during grad school. These accommodations include tools to help you manage your environment, workload, study plan, and physical access. However, there are some limits to accommodations. For example, the University of Washington does an excellent job of outlining the difference between reasonable and unreasonable accommodations.

In general, disability services offices cannot approve accommodations that require significant alterations to course curriculum or objectives. Additionally, accommodations that require a significant financial expense or negatively impact the safety of or accessibility for other students will not be allowed. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities for support. Keep reading to learn about some of the most common accommodations below.

  • Test accommodations: These can include, among other things, extended testing times, the use of noise-canceling headphones or visual barriers to limit distractions, the opportunity to take exams in an otherwise empty room, or changes to test format. These accommodations can be helpful if you have difficulty focusing, anxiety, or a condition that affects your comprehension time. Note that many testing accommodations require you to schedule a separate testing time through the school’s testing center.
  • Disabled parking passes: These passes allow you to park closer to your classrooms and know in advance where you will park. This accommodation can be helpful for students whose mental illness impacts their physical mobility, students who require predictable routines, or students who may feel unsafe traveling to and from class for various mental illness-related reasons.
  • Course waivers and substitutions: As we mentioned, accommodations that require significant changes to a course’s curriculum or goals typically won’t be approved. However, if a required course’s content poses a significant challenge to your health, you may be able to substitute the class with a safer option. For example, a student with an eating disorder may be excused from a mandatory class on nutrition by replacing it with another lab science course.
  • Scribes, note-takers, or copies of class slides: For students who struggle with focus, retention, or attendance, having access to verbatim transcripts, comprehensive notes, or visual materials can make a huge difference. In some cases, students may be able to access PowerPoint slides before class time, allowing them to familiarize themselves with the day’s material and mentally prepare.
  • Adjusted attendance policy: This accommodation can make a huge difference for students whose conditions sometimes make it difficult to leave the house or attend class. Generally, the adjusted policy allows students to take more unexcused absences than their classmates without affecting their attendance grades. The opportunity to rest and care for yourself without stressing about your next class can allow you to get back into your normal routine more quickly in the event of a crisis.
  • Assistive technology: Some students may benefit from speech-to-text or text-to-speech technology, videotaping, audiotaping, or other technological assistance during class time. These tools help students with concentration or comprehension challenges receive the same quality of instruction as their fellow students.

Interview with a College Counselor

Michael Pauldine

Michael Pauldine is a licensed psychologist at the University of Nevada, Reno Counseling Services, and he specializes in psychological assessment and coordinates the assessment program at Counseling Services. In addition to specializing in assessment of ADHD, learning disabilities, and internalizing disorders, Michael’s professional interests include working with students struggling wåith anxiety, trauma, OCD, as well as adjustment and interpersonal problems. He also enjoys working with students from diverse backgrounds, LGBTQIA+ students, and graduate/medical students.

Can you tell us about your professional background and experience working with graduate students?

I completed a bachelor’s degree in clinical/community psychology at the University of Michigan-Flint and then earned both master’s and doctorate degrees at Wichita State University (WSU). As part of my doctoral training, I worked at a university counseling center in Kansas and then completed a year-long, full-time doctoral internship at Utah State University’s (USU) counseling center. I completed a postdoctoral fellowship with a focus on psychological assessment at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) Counseling Services before being hired as a psychologist and assessment coordinator at the end of my postdoc year.

In addition to working with graduate students in an individual therapy context during my practicum at WSU, internship at USU, and postdoc and job at UNR, I have also facilitated several graduate student process groups, first during internship and then every semester since starting at UNR. These groups aim to offer support for graduate students and also focus on interpersonal goals (e.g., increasing assertiveness and becoming more comfortable with emotional vulnerability).

I continue to work with graduate and medical students in individual and group therapy and conducting psychological assessments, mostly assessments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities, but we conduct comprehensive assessments that assess for an array of possible presenting problems (e.g., anxiety, depression, trauma.

Do graduate students face different challenges than undergraduates in terms of managing their mental health?

Absolutely. There are many unique mental health challenges for graduate students. Graduate students may often need to relocate to a new area—or even country—to attend graduate school, which may mean leaving their social support system and the challenges of adjusting to a new location. Graduate students are often very reliant on their faculty advisor, such as for funding and research, and teaching opportunities. Although faculty advisors can be wonderful mentors for graduate students, if there are problems in the relationship, given the power differential, this can create significant mental health challenges for the student.

Likewise, graduate students are notoriously overworked and underpaid, and their stipends have not kept pace with inflation or the rising cost of housing. Of course, post-secondary education is expensive, and graduate degrees can be especially costly so you have problems with large amounts of student loans after graduating. All of this adds stress to any graduate student’s situation and can contribute or exacerbate mental health issues.

Do you have any specific advice for students with chronic mental illnesses entering into graduate programs?

I think it’s super important for such students to be connected to services—whether that be individual/group therapy and/or medication—before starting, as graduate school is very time demanding and connecting with and finding the right treatment can be time intensive, so having these treatments in place before starting graduate school is imperative. It is also important for chronic mental health symptoms to be stable or well-managed when starting graduate school. Obviously, starting a master’s or doctorate program is going to be stressful, and this stress may exacerbate preexisting symptoms, so having these managed and having supports in place before starting is important.

What resources should students look for on campus or in their communities to help manage the additional challenges of graduate school?

Helpful on-campus resources include the university’s disability office (UNR’s office is called the Disability Resource Center), as these offices can help with academic accommodations in response to physical or mental health disabilities. Importantly, these services often require documentation, so it is helpful if a student has such records before starting graduate school and that they connect with the office to discuss and implement accommodations as soon as possible, ideally before classes even begin.

Most universities also offer medical and psychological health treatments, so connecting with the student health center and counseling center, especially early before problems begin, may be helpful. Note that university counseling centers’ services are usually in high demand, so long-term therapy for chronic issues may not be an option, but the clinicians there should be able to assist a student in getting connected to somewhere else on or off campus for continued and ongoing treatment. Similarly, in the community, connecting with physical and mental health treatment providers is important.

Also, on campus, it is usually important for a graduate student to find a community. This may be within their graduate program (e.g., other students in their cohort), or they may find community through student groups, such as those related to particular identities. Having such social supports and connections can be extremely helpful for graduate students. Most universities will have some student-led governing body to represent the needs of graduate students. At UNR, we have the Graduate Student Association (GSA). Connecting with such an institution can be beneficial for students to be able to voice their concerns, learn about resources, and advocate for change.

Do students face discrimination based on their mental health diagnoses? If so, what recourses do they have to advocate for themselves?

I am sure they do, although I do think there is much less mental health stigma than in the past. Some professors may be resistant to provide a student with accommodations for a mental health problem, but students should be aware that they are not required to disclose any diagnosis to their professors, as the disability office should advocate for the accommodations. Any instances of discrimination should be reported to the university’s Title IX office.

Grad School With a Mental Illness: A Student’s Perspective

Kelly Stone

Kelly Stone holds an MA in English Composition. Just before starting graduate school, she was diagnosed with PTSD, Anxiety, and Depression which created some challenges for her as she navigated graduate school. She shares her experience with us below. Kelly writes about climate change and social justice issues. When she’s not writing, you can find her outside with her husband and their delightful dog.

Can you tell us about your education and background?

Without going into too much specific detail, I graduated with an MA in English Composition a few years ago. Now I work as a writer covering environmental and social issues. Between when I earned my BA and when I started grad school, I was diagnosed with PTSD. Along with that, I was also diagnosed with depression and anxiety, which is a pretty common combination from what I understand. When I was first diagnosed, I really, really struggled to manage my mental health. But, by the time I started my grad program, I was on medication that worked for me and had a lot of support. So, at that point, most people who met me wouldn’t suspect that I had any issues.

Were you worried about managing your mental health before you started grad school?

Absolutely. Anytime there is a big change in my life, or when I’m under stress my symptoms get worse. It takes a lot more time and energy to care for myself, which is hard because you are also trying to manage whatever changes or stressors you are dealing with. So, it’s like twice the work every time. Plus, I was moving to a brand-new city for school, so I didn’t have any friends there yet, and I was pretty far away from the people I was closest to.

What were some challenges you faced during your program?

At first, everything was so overwhelming. I was living in a new place, navigating a new campus, trying to keep track of all of these people I was meeting, and to build relationships with my professors on top of that. Plus, I wasn’t prepared for how much homework I was going to be dealing with every day. It was so busy, I felt like I barely had time to breathe.

Once I got settled and into a routine, things got a lot better. But every time something didn’t go as planned, like I forgot to do a reading or something, it threw me off so much that it was hard to reset and get back on track. I was so worked up about what went wrong it was sometimes hard to move forward.

I was really lucky because the doctor and therapist I had been working with at home were both willing to keep me as a patient remotely. I can’t imagine what it would have been like trying to find new providers on top of everything else.

Did you have accommodations through your school’s disability office?

I did, but the accommodations that were available weren’t really a good fit for my needs. So, through the office, I was able to get some flexibility on attendance and deadlines. That was really helpful for times when I was having an episode and literally couldn’t work or make it to class.

But I really needed content warnings for some of my triggers. The disability office didn’t really have a great way to communicate that to my professors. So, for me, it worked best to disclose a little bit of my history to my professors and have them go over the syllabus with me to see if there was anything I needed to watch out for. But I still had to do all the work.

It was a tough balance, too, because, on the one hand, my professors aren’t responsible for my mental health. But on the other hand, I needed their involvement to help me care for myself. Luckily, all of my professors were really understanding. But I can imagine in other fields there might be more of a stigma about disclosing that kind of stuff.

What strategies did you develop to care for yourself when things got tough?

The biggest thing I had learned during my treatment for PTSD is that I needed to prioritize my sleep. If I’m not sleeping well, all my other symptoms get worse, and it can be really tough to level out. So, I tried really hard to stick to a routine and go to bed at the same time, even if it meant cutting small corners – like skimming an article instead of reading the whole thing. Sort of to go along with that, I knew I needed to move every day even when I didn’t feel like it, even if it was just walking around the quad a few times. Before I made friends in my program, I also made a point to call a family member or a friend once a week to touch base and chat. It made me feel like someone was looking out for me.

Do you have any advice for other students managing mental health conditions?

I think just being realistic is a huge thing. If I could go back, I’d have thought more about taking classes part-time or staying closer to home just so I could ease into things a little. It was a lot of big changes all at once. Beyond that, make sure that you have support set up. So, have a therapist or psychiatrist lined up, and know about crisis options in your area. Even little stuff like making sure your prescriptions are going to the right pharmacy and stuff like that. I’m not sure when I would have found the time, but in retrospect, I think it would have been interesting to reach out to support groups or something like that, so I could talk to people who knew what I was going through without feeling like I was overwhelming them with my issues.