College Transition Experiences of Students with Mental Illness

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Virginia Tech

Retention of college students has continued to be a concern for many people connected with higher education (Baum & Ma, 2007; Day & Newburger, 2002; Habley & McClanahan, 2004). The high school to college transition experience has been identified as a key factor in students' decision to remain in college and persist to graduation (Hunter, 2006; Levitz & Noel, 1989; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Roe Clark, 2005). More students than ever are coming to higher education with mental health challenges (Kadison & DiGeronimo, 2004; Soet & Sevig, 2006) but a thorough review of the literature reveals no literature on the transition experience of students that have been diagnosed with psychiatric illness.

The purpose of this study was to understand and describe how students diagnosed with a mental illness experience the college transition. In addition, the study provided an understanding of the transition experience for these students at three different types of institutions. The theoretical framework for this study was Schlossberg's (1984) transition theory. The individuals in the sample included 18-19 year old traditional first year college students diagnosed with mental illness.

Interviews were conducted with 21 respondents during their second semester of college. Data analysis revealed themes under the topics of individual characteristics, academic and social transition, and institutional differences. Findings revealed that these first year students with mental illness had many of the same developmental and transition experiences and challenges as their peers. However, their transition experiences were complicated by the daily tasks of managing medications, symptoms, counseling appointments, academic support services, and involvement of parents. Participants were learning to take responsibility for their own well-being but still needed a safety-net. In addition, respondents described resources and strategies that they used to adjust academically and socially, such as receiving academic accommodations and disclosing their diagnosis to faculty and friends. The students described their campuses in similar ways, as friendly and supportive, with few institutional differences. In general, the participants confronted challenges early during their transition but at the time of the interviews they seemed to be experiencing a successful transition.

mental illness, college students, transition