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Education and Recovery

An important aspect of recovery involves not only getting better, but also achieving a full and satisfying life. Education can accelerate your recovery process in that it broadens your intellectual, social and emotional horizons. When you go to classes, you not only have an opportunity to expand your knowledge on a wide variety of topics that interest you, but you also have a chance to meet new people. Completing tasks and graduating from courses can give you a sense of pride in your accomplishments. Education can also further your goals in other areas of your life as well - it can help you get a job, and it can help you understand more about things that impact your life such as finances or health.

Education and Mental IllnessSeeking AccommodationsLearning and Career ChoicesCollege and Mental IllnessEducation-Related Issues

Education and Mental Illness

Having a mental illness can impact and affect the trajectory of your education in many ways. However, there are alternate academic opportunities at every stage of education that can enable you to continue to learn when you are well enough to do so:

  • Special education and alternative secondary schools
  • GED and high school equivalency
  • Supported education

Special Education and Alternative Schools

If you are still in high school and have had a problem with traditional public schools, alternative schools offer another option. Alternative schools differ from public schools in a variety of ways, depending on the institution. There may be shorter or longer classes or more flexibility on assignments. You may be able to work and go to school at the same time. One type of alternative school is a continuation school. Continuation schools are non-traditional high schools that offer programs to students who have been expelled, are on probation, or have disciplinary or attendance problems.

General Equivalency Degree (GED)

If you haven't received a high school diploma, you can take a test to receive your GED, which is the same as a high school diploma. The cost for this test may be up to $100, but the tests are frequently less. GED tests are administered at local community colleges or adult education centers. You don't have to take any coursework to take the test and receive your GED; however, there are limits as to who can take it, and most test takers have completed at least through the 10th grade. If you don't feel prepared to take your GED, you can take a GED preparation course.

Certificate of Attendance

If you do not meet all the requirements to graduate, such as hours taken or passing grades, you may still receive a Certificate of Attendance from a secondary school. Many schools will offer a plan of action to finish your coursework within a period of time after receiving a Certificate of Attendance.

Supported Education

Supported education is generally geared toward post-secondary college education. You will work with either a supported education specialist or a supported education team, although they may have different titles. Supported education services can include placement services, which help you find a learning path that fits your needs, assistance with admissions, and assistance finding financial aid. You might also receive help with problem-solving skills, test-taking skills, or studying tactics. A supported education specialist may, at your request, serve as an advocate for you and intervene on your behalf in school settings.

Interested in learning more? Visit SAMHSA's Supported Education Evidence-based Practices Kit.

Seeking Accommodations

Teachers and professors vary in how accommodating they are to student problems - some may be willing to give you extra time if you ask, and some may tie up your request or deny it. Your academic advisor or student-counseling center may be able to help you if you run into problems.

Like employers, educators are required by law to make school a place that is open to people with and without disability. You may have a disability if your mental health condition prevents you from doing one or more major life activities. Many people with mental health conditions have disabilities. There are a number of federal government acts that cover education issues. Many private schools willingly comply with these.

Primary and secondary education, K-12, are required to provide free and appropriate education by law. Post-secondary educational institutions are not required to provide free and appropriate education, but they are required to take other actions. Schools may not stop your enrollment because of your disability; they must make reasonable accommodations or academic adjustments to your learning; if housing is available to non-disabled students, you must receive housing.

Academic adjustments can vary by the nature and severity of your disability and the school. Common examples include asking for longer time to take tests or asking for help with a student note-taker. You may be able to ask for a reduced course load or for oral tests instead of written ones; however, the more your request changes the class, the less likely it is covered by law. Still, some schools and teachers are voluntarily compliant and may even exceed the legal requirements. If you know other people with mental health conditions who have flourished in a school environment, you should ask them how their schools and teachers helped them.

You should never have to pay more to receive academic adjustments. Each school will have a process for handling academic adjustments; you can usually find this on the website, and if you can't, you can ask any admissions counselor for assistance.

You will often have to provide documentation to schools about your disability. The burden of proof may be different for a post-secondary school than for a secondary school or an employer. You may need a detailed note from a doctor or a new evaluation.

If you think you have been unfairly discriminated against, you should follow your school's reporting and grievance procedure. They should have a staff member who is required to ensure compliance with disability and education.

Consider your Learning and Career Choices

You have many choices in higher education beyond high school. Different careers will require very different paths of learning. If you want to be a doctor, you will need an undergraduate degree, you'll need to pass a test to get into medical school, and you'll need to spend another several years in medical school, internships and residencies. If you love fixing cars and want to be a mechanic, you'll have to take a different path; a four-year degree may not be a good investment in time and money. If you want to be a bartender, you might not want to go to school at all; you will want to wait tables and tend bar during a day shift to get more experience to work at night.

Vocational School

Where a community college is more likely to offer courses that are academic in nature, vocational schools focus on specific occupations. Sometimes, community colleges will offer vocational tracks in addition to academic ones. Technical or vocational schools may be very broadly oriented - a large technical school, for example, might offer several degree programs for web design, graphic design, mechanical engineering and auto repair. Some technical or vocational schools, however, are highly specialized. Such schools may only offer training in a single field such as cosmetics for hairdressers and make-up artists, or the culinary arts for future chefs. When you graduate from a technical or vocational school, you will have a two-year degree or a certification.

Going to College with a Mental Illness

Having a mental health condition can affect your ability to study and learn. Because mental illnesses often manifest themselves during teenage years or early adulthood, it is not uncommon for symptoms to appear during the college years. If you become acutely ill while in college, you might need to take time out to seek treatment and stability. Chances are you will be able to continue your education once the condition is well controlled. While the onset of a mental illness can be dismaying, don't feel ashamed; seek help. Mental illnesses are treatable and recovery is the norm.

You may want to seek a college or university that offers supportive services for students with mental or physical disabilities. Another way to get help is to team up with a mentor or fellow consumer for extra support. You may also find or start a support group for people with mental health problems on your campus.

If you feel that your mental health condition will affect your performance, you may need to reduce your schedule or ask for a reasonable accommodation. Work with an enrollment specialist to make sure that you aren't jeopardizing your status as a full-time student.

Another option to consider if a mental health condition has prevented you from starting college or caused you to leave college is starting slowly as a non-degree student to figure out how much of a course load you can handle.

Community College

A community college is a public school that offers some college courses and certain certificates, diplomas or 2-year degrees. Students may attend community college to pursue a 2-year degree or a specific certificate to go straight to work afterwards. They may also attend to complete initial coursework before transitioning to another (usually more expensive) school, or take remedial coursework or specific courses as part of joint program. Typically a public community college has lower tuition than four-year colleges, lacks on-campus housing, is accessible by public transportation and offers a variety of enrollment options, from a few hours a semester to night school. Community colleges may be called junior colleges; however, a junior college can be a private institution (not a public one) and therefore typically is more expensive.

Four-Year Colleges and Universities

College most frequently refers to a liberal arts college that offers a four-year undergraduate degree such as a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science. A university is generally a school that has an undergraduate college as well as graduate schools that offer advanced degrees like a Masters or PhD. While colleges and universities can be expensive, you can apply for financial aid and outside scholarships.

Distance Education

Correspondence schools allow you to get a degree through the mail. Correspondence schools may offer high school or college-level courses. While there is usually a set finish date, work in correspondence schools can usually be done at your own pace. It is very important for you to understand, however, that if you are someone who needs external structure and discipline to excel, correspondence schools may not provide that structure. You also may not have an instructor that you work closely with; however, instructors will frequently be available by e-mail or telephone. A correspondence school is usually highly affordable.

Telecourse learning might be sponsored by your local college or university. Instead of attending classes in a classroom, you receive your education manual and watch either a live television feed or prerecorded video of a lecture. The instructor is available by e-mail or phone. Like correspondence school, telecourse learning can be done more at your own pace than a traditional school. However, you may have to go to your campus or a pre-designated satellite site to take tests, turn in assignments or study for exams with a group. Telecourses may be more expensive than correspondence courses because they typically have the same cost per credit hour as the university that sponsors them. You will likely need access to a television with a video player, a computer with Internet access, or both.

E-learning or online degree programs have made distance learning more popular and accessible than ever. Many traditional colleges and universities have offered some courses or degree programs online, but recently, schools that specialize in all distance learning have sprung up. In fact, an online college has the highest enrollment of any U.S. university. E-learning can take a variety of forms. In some programs, you may work entirely on your own, reading your textbook and watching lectures online but working largely at your own pace as long as you finish by the end of your semester. Other online degree programs will be highly involved, requiring you to attend regularly scheduled meetings with classmates through technology that lets you see and talk to each other and submit paperwork. You should pick a style of learning that best fits your schedule. You will need a computer and regular Internet access to attend online degree courses.

Other Types of Learning

Tests and Certifications

Depending on your job, a specific certification may be the most reputable thing you can have. You can achieve certifications by taking tests or performing jobs. Some tests will require that you have existing working experience; others do not. For example, human resources professionals may want to have the Professional of Human Resources (PHR) title. To take the test to get PHR certified, you need to prove you have a combination of a degree and certain years of experience. If you want to repair computers, you may need certifications in some computer courses. These certifications may not require experience in the field; you can be self-taught.

Short Courses

Some employment fields have short courses or on-the-job training that can prepare you for what to do. These on-the-job courses, such as ones that train you to work at a crisis hotline, for example, may be sponsored by your employer.

Continuing Education

Even if you already have a degree, the world is constantly changing and it requires you to stay on top. Social workers and other professionals in human services frequently need to keep continuing education ongoing in their careers. Many conferences or seminars may be certified to offer "continuing education" credits if you need this more formally; otherwise, you will want to keep abreast of current topics.

Adult Education

Many community centers or community colleges will offer adult education. These courses are not specific to degree programs or paths of learning but may offer valuable information, such as courses in running a small business or speaking Spanish. These are usually held at night or on the weekends.


When most people think of internships, they think of college students working without pay in order to earn academic credit. Internships aren't actually student specific; they are a blend of education and work. An internship usually involves a close relationship with other staff at a business working on specific projects and tasks to refine old skills or learn new ones. Where a volunteer might answer phones or bring food to homeless people, an intern might help a program staff member develop strategies to bring the food to the homeless. Sometimes the line between intern and volunteer can be blurred. Some internships offer an hourly wage or a paid stipend. If you are interested in an internship, make sure you talk to your employer at the interview. Ask about the specific tasks and projects you will work on. You should expect to spend some of your time doing administrative work like filing, but you should also get a sense of a real opportunity to learn on the job.

Common Education-Related Issues

While managing your mental illness and pursuing your education may be difficult at times, making you feel isolated, you are not alone. Many people, including some highly successful people, have found themselves in similar circumstances. Read on to learn more about questions frequently asked by students and prospective students just like you.

What if I'm uncomfortable in school?

Despite efforts to educate the public about mental health and mental health conditions, you may still encounter stigma from people who don't know or understand what you are going through. If you think that any school official has illegally discriminated against you or violated your privacy rights because of your mental health condition, you should report your concerns to the Office of Civil Rights.

However, you might feel uncomfortable in school even if your teachers and the staff haven't done anything illegal. Maybe your fellow students are judgmental; maybe your school doesn't offer enough academic adjustments. Remember, switching schools may be a lot easier than switching work. You should always ask in advance what kind of accommodations a school is willing to make for someone with disabilities.

When would I need an advocate?

Despite efforts to educate people about mental illness, some people still harbor prejudices. Your teachers may not understand your condition, or believe that no one needs adjustments or accommodations. If you encounter problems asking for adjustments like longer test times or student note-takers, it may be helpful to involve an advocate to speak to your educator on your behalf.

How will going to school affect government benefits?

While government benefits such as SSI, SSDI or Food Stamps are generally impacted by wages and employment, attending school may have little or no impact on government benefits you receive. In fact, full-time students often have more benefits available to them. If your campus is large enough, you may have access to a health center or a teaching hospital. You can read more about attending school at

What are some things to watch out for?

You should always make sure that your school is accredited by proper authorities. Regional and national organizations accredit institutions of learning to make sure they adhere to certain standards. Accreditation validates your degree. If you get a law degree, but your school isn't accredited, you will not be able to practice law in most areas. It gets tricky because there are both recognized accreditation and unrecognized accreditation organizations. The Department of Education runs a database on accredited postsecondary institutions that can be found at

Additionally, you should be aware of the fact that some schools or courses may be run by organizations or persons that have their own agenda and interests other than your education. You should always research the mission of any school you pick.

What are some other things I might need while attending school?

A permanent address - If you're moving around frequently or staying with friends, you will still want a permanent address so you can receive important school documents. If you visit family and friends and trust them, ask if you can use their address temporarily. Otherwise, you might want to consider getting a P.O. Box from a local post office.

Important Documents - When you apply to a formal school, you may need to have proof of legal U.S. residency. Resident ID cards, passports, birth certificates, social security cards and driver's licenses may help you with this. Schools are generally less strict about verifying legal status than employers. If you are pursuing adult education, you may need to have proof of address, as many locations offer discounts or require that you live in a certain area. Additionally, you may want to have something that verifies a diagnosis of a mental health condition in the event you need to request accommodations. Schools may ask for an updated diagnosis if you request an adjustment.

Transportation - If you do not have a car, research the schools you are interested in attending to see if they are accessible by public transportation. Generally, most schools and education centers are accessible by public transportation in areas where transportation is readily available. If not, your school might have its own bus system or a way to transport someone with a disability.