Retaking the Leap: Transitioning Back to School After a Leave of Absence

By Shelby Cranshaw

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Making the decision to take a break from school to address mental health or substance use issues is difficult. Deciding when you are ready to go back can be even harder. You don’t want to go back before you are ready, but you also don’t want to put your life on hold forever. For some, there is a pressure to dive right back in. This is because not getting a college degree isn’t seen as an option, but more of an expectation. This discussion about when an individual is ready to go back can be challenging and emotional. It is a decision that a lot of people usually have an interest in because of the financials and desire to see a loved one succeed. However, only the individual heading back to school will be going through the transition and doing the work, so the decision should always be up to them.

When making this decision, here are some ideas to keep in mind:

Many people believe that the four-year path is the only way to consider college a success, but that is not true. A lot of college students who obtain a degree in four years do not do it happily or easily. It is a struggle for anyone, so the idea that it needs to be finished in four years should be thrown out the window. Often people are in such a rush to finish their degree, that they don’t really consider why they want to be there and what they want to get out of it. A break from school for mental health or substance use issues can give you the time and space to explore those questions. There is the expectation that we know what we want to do at 18-years-old and deciding where to go to college. Just remember that there is no shame in finishing a degree at your own pace. You will have a better appreciation for being in school and learning what you are learning if you have given it more thought.

That being said, I think it is a good idea to go back into school with an idea of what it is you want to study and what you want to get out of school. College can be what you want it to be. Depending on how much time you took off from school, you may or may not know anyone on campus. What are your goals for being there? Do you want to get heavily involved in on-campus activities, or do you want to treat school like a 9-5 job and build a life outside of school? There is no right answer and there are a lot of different ways of doing it, but go back into school with goals and share those goals with your support system. They will help you through the tough times and help to keep you on the right path.

By sharing these goals, you can “manage” expectations and have what may be a difficult conversation before you are already back in school. Go into school on the same page as the people who need to be on the same page as you. Maybe a parent wants you to have a very traditional college experience or one that mirrors their own but you would rather shape your own experience. Don’t leave these conversations for when you are already back at school. You have every right to do college your own way. Life will be easier if the people who are supporting you have an idea about what your college experience is going to look like. You want your support system to measure whether school is going well in the same way you are measuring it.

This will create some accountability for you. If you have left school once, you are probably hoping that you won’t have to leave again. The last thing anyone wants to happen is for you to fall into old cycles, have bad habits reemerge, and for school not to be your own version of a success. If you are going back to the same school, it is especially important to have conversations about what life is going to look like for you. Others might expect you to lead a life similar to the one you had before you left, but if you share with your parents, therapists, and friends how you want life to be they can help support you in achieving that. People will want to support and help you in any way that they can, but it will be more effective if you tell them the best way they can do it. You will only get frustrated if they are offering the wrong kind of help. Everyone will be happier if you can communicate how they can support you.

Make sure you are going back for yourself. Only you can decide when you are ready. Parents or therapists can tell you when they think you are ready, but you have to listen to yourself and make the decision for yourself. Maybe you want to take one more semester to establish a healthy routine or explore what it is you want to go back to school for. If you have the resources to delay going back to school for a little bit longer, then take advantage of this time so you can go back to school more focused and certain that it is the right time for you and not for someone else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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