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Living with any kind of chronic health condition – from migraines and chronic pain conditions to mental illness – can be challenging. Add being a college student into the equation, and it’s a real uphill climb. You have to learn to juggle doctors’ appointments and medications, negotiate with insurance companies, and still do your homework and make time to see your friends. It’s exhausting, and it can make you feel alienated from your peers. I’ve been there, but one thing that I’ve discovered since starting college is that it’s possible to thrive while attending school with chronic illness, as long as you have a strong support system in place.

Student Health Benefits: Your Ally In Health

In my case, one of the most valuable resources at my disposal has been UMN’s Student Health Benefit Plan. This plan gives me access to the complete Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota network, ensuring that I always have access to the care I need. The reality is, you can’t travel home to your old doctors in between classes, and student health centers are rarely sufficient for those of us with chronic conditions. With access to providers across a range of specialties, as well as many hospitals, though, I can feel confident that I’m never far from the care I need.

Of course, on a day-to-day basis, it takes a lot of other strategies to navigate college as a chronically ill college student, but having the right medical insurance for your location – especially if you’re traveling out of your home state for school – is one of the most important factors. Since starting on this journey, though, I’ve had time to pick up a few insights that other chronically ill college students may find helpful.

Pursue Accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including at school, and UMN and other colleges all have an office charged with managing accommodations. You’ll need proper documentation to access these accommodations, so ideally, you’ll want to see your doctor at home and discuss what services you’ll need before you depart for school. 

In addition to helping you identify appropriate accommodations, your doctors can also help you determine what types of documentation you’ll need to provide to your school to access those services. With proper documentation, students with a variety of disabilities, including often debilitating conditions like ME/CFS, succeed in college.

Evaluate Your Needs

Depending on your individual health, you’ll want to consider different things when choosing a school. For example, wheelchair users will want to evaluate campus terrain; just because there are ramps, it’s entirely possible the campus may still be too hilly or that the grounds crew doesn’t clear snow well in the winter, creating access issues. Visually impaired students on the other hand, may want to speak to the library to discuss what support they offer for enlarging or modifying course materials. This is one of the major challenges of attending college with a chronic illness or disability – there may be supports, but we all have different needs.

Just as your student health insurance may help you meet certain critical needs as a disabled or chronically ill student, one thing that I’ve found during my time at UMN is that being affiliated with a university hospital is really helpful, especially if you need specialist treatment or close monitoring. For example, when I found out that my cousin was positive for the BRCA1 mutation that increases your risk of breast cancer, I decided I should get tested since the gene runs in families. Since most college students are at a very low risk of breast cancer because of age, though, I knew it would be best to see a specialist – and the university hospital was there.

Know Your Limits

In high school, most students have a lot of support from our parents and teachers. Maybe your mom or dad even called the school to ask for extensions, picked you up from your friends’ houses when you were too tired to take the bus, or carried your laundry up and down the stairs. Well, college means figuring out how to do a lot more yourself – and that’s a major learning curve. It can also be frustrating and totally exhausting.

One way to make sure you’re prepared to handle all of your new responsibilities is by learning to pace yourself when studying and doing chores. Figure out what activities make you the most fatigued or cause cognitive challenges and then build a schedule that allows you to maximize efficiency without leaving you stuck in bed. You might find it helps to listen to audio versions of your textbooks, transcribe your papers using voice-to-text software, or to do most of your physical activities on one day so that you can work from bed the following day. Or, if you’re concerned about self-advocacy, practice writing out scripts asking for what you need from people in authority and practice using them with a parent or friend.

You’re Not Alone

When you’re a high school student struggling with health issues, it can feel like you’re the only one, but one great thing about starting college is that you’ll start to find your community. More importantly, that community will help you figure out how to access all the tools you need and strategize around your individual needs. Remember: chronic physical and mental health problems don’t need to be a source of stigma. As a way of creating identity and community, it might be more accurate to consider them a source of strength.

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