Accommodating Students With Ongoing Mental Health Issues

Lessons from York U’s Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program

Enid Weiner, MSW, EdD

Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 24-25

I coordinate the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program at York University in Toronto. This program provides assistance to students with psychiatric disabilities,1 in the areas of academics, social support (e.g., one-on-one, groups, peer mentoring), advocacy and self-advocacy.

Over the past 18 years, I’ve seen an enormous change in the number of students with various psychiatric disabilities who are attending and succeeding in post-secondary education. Many more self-identified students are now earning degrees, not only at the undergraduate level, but at the masters and PhD levels. However, no matter the academic level, students with psychiatric disabilities benefit from extra support.

Students with mental illness: the ups and downs

There is a strong relationship between a student’s academic career and his or her experience with mental illness. Students with psychiatric disabilities typically experience periods of wellness and periods of relapse while they’re at university. Their academic performance often mirrors this pattern. They may manage well for months or for years, then suddenly will have difficulty with their studies. As a result, their grades may not always reflect their true abilities.

These issues can be made worse by discrimination, sometimes imagined, and in many instances, real. Discrimination makes it hard for students to look for help. As well, students may not know what on-campus policies or resources are in place to assist them with their studies.

I would encourage all students with psychiatric disabilities to contact the office on their campus that provides services for students with disabilities. Under provincial human rights codes, reasonable and appropriate accommodations are your right, not a privilege. Not only can staff at those offices advocate for students, but hopefully they will teach students to become their own best advocates.

Here at York University, we’ve put together an information package about the many services and resources that are available on our campus for students with mental illness. Similar resources may be available on your campus. Be sure you find out about them.

Academic accommodations: what are they?

Academic accommodations are changes made to the academic environment that level the playing field so that students with disabilities can perform in a way that best reflects their potential. Accommodations are not meant to change the essential requirements of a course. Rather, they allow the student to have their work evaluated in a way that shows they’ve learned the concepts taught. How you learn doesn’t reflect what you learn.

An invisible disability can be difficult to understand at the best of times. Instructors, and even students themselves, don’t always understand how the demands of school can worsen symptoms of one’s illness.

I truly believe that accommodations for students with psychiatric disabilities, in particular, need to take into account the importance of reducing stress. This means that students with mental health issues need to take preventative measures—instead of crisis-driven ones—to maintain their health and their studies. Taking a reduced course load and going at a slower pace can help reduce stress and lead to better grades, fewer academic crises and a more enjoyable academic experience.

Other academic accommodations include, but are not limited to:

  • allowing more time to complete assignments, as needed

  • writing supervised tests and exams in a separate room, with extra time allowed to write them

  • permission to audiotape lectures

  • use of a note taker

  • alternative forms of testing that don’t change the

  • essential skills being tested

  • alternative forms of evaluation if oral presentations are problematic for disability-related reasons

  • memory aids that need to be approved by professors in advance of a test or exam

Some of these accommodations need to be negotiated on a case-by-base basis.

Academic accommodations: a balancing act

There is always a balancing act to consider between an instructor’s goals for student learning and the nature and severity of a student’s mental illness. It’s helpful for both students and instructors to know what kinds of academic accommodations can reasonably be considered in certain situations.
If a student has difficulty working in a group situation because of their mental illness, and the course is one in which the student is expected to learn group work skills, this accommodation may not be permitted by the instructor. If memory is being tested and a student requires memory aids, this accommodation may also not be allowed.

On the other hand, if a student needs a memory aid (e.g., list of formulas for math or historical dates for art history) during exams because of memory problems, and the purpose of the course is not to test memory, then this accommodation would be a reasonable one.

Without needing to know the diagnosis, instructors should be encouraged by administration to problem solve with you. For example, a student in an honours program was experiencing a setback during the final year of her undergraduate degree. She was expected to do an oral presentation as part of her thesis course, but because of her severe panic attacks, this seemed impossible for her to face. A creative approach to the problem resulted in a friend videotaping the student’s presentation, then the student showing the video in class.

At first the instructor didn’t like the video idea, because she felt the oral presentation was an important requirement for honours students in that particular discipline. She believed that a grade in her course should reflect similar forms of evaluation for everyone. However, she came to realize that the student would be doing the work herself, would be presenting it herself, though on a video screen, and that there was still an oral presentation aspect.

Often when instructors don’t seem accommodating, it’s because they might not fully understand the difficulties the student is having. Instructors need to understand how the disability affects the student’s learning—that, for example, it can affect concentration, memory, speed of performance on tasks, and participation level.

Instructors also need to know what alternatives are available that are fair for everyone involved. This includes other students who may also be experiencing difficulties, even though they don’t have a diagnosed disability. This brings into the discussion the whole notion of Universal Instructional Design (UID),2 so that a more inclusive learning environment benefits all students.

Final words

It’s important to note that each situation is different. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to providing academic accommodations.

Some accommodations are not necessarily a ‘done deal’ and, as stated above, need to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. For example, instructors are often reluctant to allow students to take home an exam because they cannot be sure that the student wrote the test on his or her own. Some professors, however, will allow take-home exams or may suggest an extra assignment instead of an exam.

In making a decision about an accommodation, an instructor may take into consideration how well they know the student and the student’s:

  • ability to understand the course material

  • class attendance

  • participation level

  • the amount of work they have handed in to date

Instructors should always be part of the process. If students with psychiatric disabilities work with their instructors, then these instructors will be in a better position to support the next student who makes a request for accommodation.

About the author

Enid is the founder and Coordinator of the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program offered through the Counselling and Development Centre at York University in Toronto.