National Alliance on Mental Illness
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ADHD and College: Promoting Positive Outcomes

See also Obtaining Accommodations in College.

The college experience can be a challenging adventure for any student as he or she navigates through making new friends, achieving academic success, learning to live independently and planning the future. If you're living with ADHD, the additional responsibility of managing your condition and its symptoms—challenges with organization and time management, challenges with writing skills, difficulty focusing on goals and high frustration levels—can make this transition time seem overwhelming. Generally, schools that work well for students living with ADHD have small class sizes, classroom participation and dedicated faculty members.

However, students living with ADHD can be successful in any college as long as they have the right supports—from a network of friends to individualized accommodations and strategies.

Joanne JohnsonJoanne Johnson: My Story

He is 20 years old now. My husband was always an over achiever, but would start projects and never finish them. We would go camping and friends would call our campsite the “ADHD campsite” because it was so creative and organized. ADHD has really mostly been a positive thing in our lives. You're always hit with something from all angles, but it’s more fun than a boring life!

I became involved with NAMI Mercer, N.J., after my son was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder around fifth grade. Read more.

Understanding Your Rights in College

In high school, you may have been receiving services and accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law no longer applies in post-secondary education—this means no more individualized education programs (IEPs) or IEP teams.

Instead, as a college student living with ADHD, you are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Both of these laws require schools to provide you with reasonable accommodations if you disclose your disability. However, these laws do not specify a process for obtaining accommodations like IDEA does, so each college has its own procedures to obtain accommodations based on its interpretation of the laws. In college, you are responsible for learning these procedures, disclosing that you live with ADHD if you plan to request accommodations, requesting, obtaining and revising any accommodations you think are necessary each semester and monitoring your academic progress. There is no IEP team to do these things for you.

It is also important to understand federal privacy laws, including the Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPAA) and Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA). These laws govern the information that is protected in your medical and educational records, who they can be shared with and when.

Understanding Your Insurance

Historically, students covered under their parents’ insurance plan had to enroll in college fulltime to remain covered after age 18. Thus, those who had to take less than a full course load because of their disability, including ADHD, risked being removed from their parents’ insurance plan.

However, under the Health Care Reform law, effective September 26, 2010, young adults are now allowed to stay on their parents’ plan until they turn 26 years old, regardless of their student enrollment status and even if they no longer live with their parents or are not a dependent on a parent’s tax return. In the case of existing group health plans, this right does not apply if the young adult is offered insurance through their employer.

To learn more about your rights on campus, check out Campus Mental Health: Know Your Rights.

Preparing for College

The first step to succeeding in college is being prepared. The sooner you start preparing, the easier it will be to transition to college. This includes identifying the resources, services and supports that exist at your college and in the community that surrounds it. The more upfront research you do, the better equipped you will be to address any challenges that arise. Here are some action steps you can take to prepare yourself for the transition to college:

  1. Research psychological and psychiatric services on campus. Most college websites offer an overview of the mental health services and supports provided on campus through their counseling center. You can also access this information at ULifeline, an online resource for college mental health. You may also want to call or visit your college’s counseling center to make sure it offers adequate services tailored to your needs. Some questions you will want to ask, include:
    • What services and supports do you provide for students living with ADHD? Are there associated fees? Do you provide short- and long-term care for students living with ADHD?
    • How many psychologists and psychiatrists are on staff? Are there limits to how many times I can see a psychiatrist and/or psychologist on campus? Are there any ADHD specialists on campus? Do I need a referral to see someone on campus? Can I make an appointment prior to arriving at school?
    • Do you provide off-campus referrals? Do you fill prescriptions on campus from off-campus practices?
    • What emergency procedures are in place during the normal business hours of the campus counseling center? Is there anyone on call 24 hours per day? If not, who should I call in an emergency?
  2. Identify hospitals and private practices in the community. Most campuses only offer short-term care to students and often do not have services geared specifically toward students living with ADHD. Thus, it is important to locate and research services and supports off campus, too. You will want to locate private practices that are accessible, affordable and student friendly. You will also want the number of the local hospital in case you experience an emergency when campus-based services are unavailable.
  3. Connect with the disability resource center. Services and supports are typically provided through a college’s disability resource center, but only if you disclose that you have a disability and request accommodations. The disability resource center can help you coordinate these accommodations and work through the challenges you may be facing with specific courses. Getting to know the staff there early on will help you access support when it is most needed. Here are some questions you may want to ask your college’s disability resource center:
    • What are specific services and accommodations you typically provide to students living with ADHD? What other supports are available through your office?
    • What is the process for requesting accommodations? What documentation do you require? How long does the process take?
    • Is there a study skills program specifically available for students living with ADHD? What other academic support services are available? What kinds of educational and wellness programs are provided on campus?
    • Do you have an ADHD specialist on staff?
    • Does your office provide specialized registration assistance to students living with ADHD?
    • Should I tell my professors about my ADHD and any accommodations I need?
    • Can I get in touch with students who are receiving services from you to learn about their experiences at the school?
  4. Understand policies. It is critical that you know your rights in college to ensure that you are receiving the accommodations you are entitled to, that your college’s procedures and policies are legal and that you are not discriminated against because you live with ADHD. Here is a sample of questions you will want to ask your school:
    • What health and academic information do you share, if any, with families, staff, campus security, residential advisors, law enforcement and hospitals?
    • What policies exist for students taking a leave of absence as a result of ADHD, students experiencing a psychiatric crisis on campus and students whose health or welfare is in jeopardy?
  5. Develop a transition plan. Since transitions can be very difficult for people living with ADHD, you may want to gradually expose yourself to the transition to campus life. This may mean starting off at a local community college or if you are going out of state, living with a nearby, supportive family member or family friend first. It is up to you to determine what supports will be helpful to make the transition as smooth as possible and to develop a plan that takes those supports into account.

    Psychiatric Advance Directives (PADs)

    You may want to sign a HIPAA Release before going to college to let your parents remain involved with your medical care. If you have co-occurring mental health or substance use disorders that can impact your ability to make decisions about your health, financial or other personal matters, you may also want to consider assigning a Power of Attorney over some of your affairs and developing a Psychiatric Advance Directive (PAD) to share with others.

    PAD is a legal document that allows you to give instructions for future mental health treatment or appoint someone you trust to make future decisions about your treatment. The document is used if you become unable to make or communicate decisions about your treatment. For more information, visit the National Resource Center on Psychiatric Advanced Directives.

    If you are receiving special education services under IDEA, then you are entitled to transition planning from your high school. Transition planning includes identifying post-secondary education goals, such as collecting information on your college’s requirements and services, developing the ability to describe ADHD and its impact on your learning, anticipating accommodations and organizing documentation. All of these types of activities can be included in your IEP plan. Additionally, your high school is required to provide a Summary of Performance to you, which includes your academic achievement and functional performance to date. It should also include a description of current and past services and supports and recommendations for future accommodations.

Disclosing Your Disorder

It is your choice whether you want to disclose that you are living with ADHD to your college. Reasons you may want to disclose include:

  • to request reasonable accommodations from the college;
  • to discuss academic requirements and practical components of your course of study; and
  • to ensure faculty members implement the reasonable accommodations you need to be successful in the class.

The timing of your disclosure depends on when you need accommodations. But remember, you want to disclose before you have trouble in a class due to a lack of support. Here are five instances when it may be important to consider disclosure:

  • prior to enrollment if you need accommodations during the application process;
  • at the time of enrollment if you anticipate you will need accommodations to complete your classes;
  • during your course of study if you discover you need accommodations to successfully complete the program;
  • if you are diagnosed with ADHD during your course of study and need accommodations to successfully complete the program; or
  • never. You may choose to not disclose that you live with ADHD if no accommodations are needed or if you have decided to accommodate your needs personally.

Generally, you should only disclose that you live with ADHD to those individuals who need to know because of the accommodation process. This usually includes disability resource center staff, your academic advisor or an admissions officer. You may be discouraged to disclose to faculty because of student confidentiality issues.

In terms of disclosing to others you will encounter in the college setting, including your peers, it is up to you and your own personal privacy boundaries about whether to disclose. You will want to determine for yourself the amount and type of information you want to share with others and you may wish to only share personal information with those you trust. Regardless of how, when or why you disclose that you are living with ADHD, always keep the conversation focused on your abilities, strengths and self-determination.

Learn about obtaining accommodations in college.