Working with College Students who have Mental Illness

Working with College Students who have Mental Illness (Psychiatric and/or Psychological Disorders)

College campuses across the country are seeing students with emotional difficulties far more complex and more severe than those in years past. Psychological disorders refer to a wide range of conditions characterized by anxiety, mood swings, depression and other behaviors. These behaviors can persist and change over time. Psychological conditions may include such disorders as attention deficit disorders, eating disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and others. The majority of psychological disorders are treated using a combination of medication, therapy, and support. Because of the social stigma that often accompanies these conditions, students may be reluctant to disclose their needs for accommodations.

Some of the specific mental illnesses on campuses include: Anxiety Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Dissociative Disorders, Dual Diagnosis: Substance Abuse and Mental Illness, Eating Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder, Schizophrenia, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome

Problem areas for college students with mental illness:

  • Sleeping problems—too much or not enough
  • Class attendance
  • Focus and concentration
  • Impaired cognitive functioning
  • Behavioral symptoms of anxiety and stress
  • Difficulty working in groups
  • Medication changes
  • Undesirable side effects from medication: increased fatigue, sleeplessness, concentration difficulties, poor memory, slowed reaction times

Tips for working with college students with mental illness:

  • Provide an understanding and accepting environment
  • Be willing to discuss how the disability affects the student
  • Break tasks into smaller ones
  • Preferential seating in classroom (e.g., near the door or at back of the classroom)
  • Have student check perception of situation or information to ensure they are on right track
  • Consider extensions, incompletes, or late withdrawals in the event of prolonged illness
  • Be specific about your attendance policy and late assignments on the course syllabus
  • Provide option of extending deadlines for assignments to reduce stress and anxiety
  • Encourage student to seek counseling if student approaches you for therapeutic assistance

Things to remember about students with mental illness:

  • Continuing dialogue between student and professor will help minimize problems and maximize understanding of the impact of the disability.
  • Students with psychological disorders may have no more control over their condition than do students with physical or sensory impairments.
  • Remember that the student code of conduct applies to ALL students. Psychological disorders are not an excuse for unacceptable behavior in and out of the classroom.
  • Be careful of stereotypical thinking. Behavioral manifestations of psychological disorders are unique to each individual. A diagnosis does not predict the behavior the same for every student.