Getting Back On The College Horse After Depression


Bradley left college after depression and a suicide attempt landed him in the psychiatric hospital midway through his first semester. Now just 3 months later, he is planning to go back. And I’m wondering if anything will really be different so soon after leaving.

His symptoms are finally beginning to abate, but is he really ready to go back to his life at college. What’s truly changed?

Time off after a mental health crisis is often necessary, but how long? And for what aims? How is recovery measured, and when is it time to get back to normal functioning? There are no clear guidelines for answering these questions and we’re often offering up the wrong advice in the mental health field.

If Bradley takes time off for a broken leg, or a round of chemo, the time it takes to heal is clearer. We know how long a joint needs to avoid weight bearing, and how exhausted and medically vulnerable our cancer treatments leave patients and for how long. But with depression, it’s far less clear.

Then there’s the fact that Bradley is not only a college student, but he dropped out in his very first semester. He hasn’t even been successful at this new role yet; he doesn’t have any earned college credits. He’s going back to his role as an adult student when the role itself may be a precipitating factor in his suicidal depression. Our students are starting higher ed burned out and exhausted from unsustainable high school schedules and pressures. Maybe he doesn’t even want to invest in a university education, but hasn’t had time to figure that out. Or maybe he lacks the life skills that make the wheels go round in a young adult’s first steps away from home.

Experience has taught me not to recommend students jump back into classes under these circumstances, and that going back to a college or university right away after dropping out the prior semester is not a great plan. Whatever the underlying factors in the onset of depression and the process of starting adult life, it usually takes more time to address them.

Many universities require 6-12 months of part time employment and community college coursework before accepting a student back after a medical withdrawal for psychiatric symptoms. The universities have experience with what works: a rehabilitation period to get the adult skills on line, and greater support from parents by initially operating from home base. This is often my recommendation, too, because it seems to work out better than jumping right back on the horse that threw them by returning to full time school.

If Bradley had gone to work instead of college after high school, I’d expect him to get back to his normal life a whole lot faster. The skills and tools needed for successful return to work are quicker to get back on track, and more likely to stay there.

Utilization of mental health services by young adults has risen over the past two decades, and we need better guidelines for people like Bradley. His depression isn’t something that is isolated to the biology of his brain, it’s intertwined with his life, his roles, and his development as a young man. His depression isn’t a broken leg or a cancer, and he isn’t in the same boat as his 50-year-old father might be when it comes to taking time off and then starting over. His limited life experience, his role as a student, and the self-directed nature of adult-student roles all affect his mental health and his ability to regroup and get back to a normal life.

Posted on January 14, 2019 .