Which college to choose for a child who lives with mental illness

With suicide being the number two cause of death on college campuses in the United States, you don’t need to be paying tuition at any college that doesn’t support your child’s emotional health. What you want to look for is a university that puts student wellness first and not one that simply does a one-time poster campaign during May mental health month.

What sends students to the counseling centers most often? Anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. That’s because college life means increased workload, stress, less structure, and more focus on peers which can collide with learning and self-esteem issues. A young man who was able to manage stress and maintain grades in high school with a lot of hard work and support from parents might find himself struggling in the more complex world of college.

Whether you are a student looking into colleges yourself or you are a parent trying to help your child with mental health issues including substance use disorder, here are some tips to finding the right fit.

First, research the university or community college

Do they have a robust counseling center? Do they have any events regarding mental health during the school year and not just mental health month? Examples include panel events, presentations, training opportunities, AFSP suicide prevention walks, or a “Send Silence Packing” demonstration from Active Minds.

Do they have mental health nonprofit representation on campus such as NAMI or Active Minds? Does the university have any coping skills workshops throughout the year? Do they have programs for diversity and inclusion and live that commitment? Does the university have support for LGBTQ youth?

Are their professors trained in mental health or suicide prevention? Do they have suicide prevention training for students such as QPR? I know NC State has one-hour education on suicide prevention every week during the school year. A phone call to the counseling center can help answer these questions.

The following is harder to find out but a lot of universities will find a way to usher a student out of the university if they mention the “D” word–that is depression. Usually reaching out to those you know who go to the university can help. Check online, ask friends to ask their kids.

Any university with a substance use support program, an Interactive Screening Program (ISP from AFSP) or is designated as a JED campus (or going through the process) shows a commitment to student wellness. A JED Campus designation takes four years to achieve so colleges designated as such should be at the front of the line.

So what about community colleges? You will find that many of these are ahead of the curve due to having such a diverse and transient student population. But like everything else, they need researching as well.

Include the counseling center in your college tour

Ask specifically to tour the counseling center with your college-bound student and find out what the process is and what kind of support is offered. If you can’t visit, call and find out the protocol.

It’s likely that sometime in that four-year period at a university, your student will struggle emotionally so it’s good to know the protocol and even better that they went to the building and saw it for themselves. That way if they have issues, they are more likely to use the resources.

Periods of risk

When Kim O’Brien PhD LICSW and I were interviewing experts for our book, Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk, Victor Schwartz MD, former medical director of the JED Foundation, talked about transitions being difficult for young people and when they are at greater risk. While the book is more geared towards middle and high school teachers, the periods of risk pertain to both teens and young adults. While most students do not attempt or die by suicide during these periods, it does indicate a period of stress associated with transitions and a note to provide additional encouragement and support.

What are the transitions? The high school to college transition and all the mini transitions during the college years including leaving for breaks and returning back to campus during holidays, spring break, and graduations, are all potential periods of suicide risk and relapse for teens and young adults.

Another trigger for vulnerable populations is a relationship disruption which can mean a fight with a roommate, a romantic breakup, grief from the loss of a friend or family member, or parental divorce.

Please note that no one dies by or attempts suicide for one reason only but is the result of underlying vulnerability such as trauma or mental illness in addition to family history, health history, and psychosocial environment. Suicide is a result of a constellation of issues that happen all at once and a transition or disruption in a relationship can be the “last straw.”

You don’t always know if your student is part of a vulnerable population because many times underlying mental health issues don’t appear until the college years.


  • JED College Campuses– If the college your child is looking at is not on this list, call the counseling department and ask if they are considering it. Becoming a JED campus is a 4-year process and actively pursuing that initiative does illustrate a commitment to prioritizing student health. I notice my oldest son’s school is on the list, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
  • CollegiateRecovery.org – This is a website that lists all the universities with a commitment to supporting students with substance misuse or substance use disorders.
  • ISP (Interactive Screening Program)- American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. This program is successfully used at many US colleges. It’s an anonymous online tool for students experiencing mental health issues or suicidal ideation. It’s anonymous until they make the choice to reach out. UCLA article about ISP.
  • Send Silence Packing from Active Minds– Some online research will indicate whether they’ve ever hosted this event
  • AFSP (American Foundation of Suicide Prevention) Out of the Darkness Campus Walks– Some online research will indicate whether they’ve ever hosted a campus walk.
  • Active Minds Chapters
  • Stigma-Free Campus from NAMI
  • Is your son or daughter have autism spectrum disorder? SpectrumWise.com is a good resource for finding which college would be a good fit.
  • Has your young adult had to take a semester off? Look into College Re-entry, a program dedicated to helping students with re-entry into college after having withdrawn from their studies. This could be due to any issue including a suicide attempt to loss of a parent or even due to cancer treatment.
  • Eating Disorders and College– College athletes and nonathletes alike can be at risk for developing anorexia or bulimia


I used the strategies I outline in this 11-page guide starting when my son was about ten months away from leaving for college and I saw a transformation in his ability to cope and manage adversity. So it’s never too late to start some of the strategies. During his junior year, Richard, who is otherwise a rock of resilience and stability did call me in emotional distress.

While he wasn’t suicidal, he did feel he was stuck in darkness and recognized it wasn’t a healthy place to be and that he might need support to sort it all out. Since I had researched the resources prior to his acceptance, I could point him in the direction of those resources which he used. He managed the situation and I asked questions and just complimented his courage for seeking help. This episode of building resilience would be important later when his brother, Charles, killed himself two weeks after he graduated from college.

Got any other resources? List them in the comment boxes below.

Published by

AnneMoss Rogers

AnneMoss Rogers is a mental health and suicide education expert, mental health speaker, suicide prevention trainer and consultant. She is author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW. She raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost her younger son, Charles to addiction and suicide on June 5, 2015. She is a motivational speaker who empowers by educating and provides life saving strategies and emotionally healthy coping skills. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now that's the legacy she carries forward in her son's memory. Mental Health Speakers Website.

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