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Mental Health

Attaining your Educational Dreams

Enid Weiner

Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, pp. 4-5.

It was with the greatest pleasure that I accepted the invitation to be the Guest Editor of Visions’ focus on supported education. I saw it as an opportunity to be able to spread the word about what is possible for persons living with a mental illness who are thinking of either entering the field of higher education or perhaps returning to school after an interruption in their studies.

With the development of services for students with disabilities at post-secondary educational institutions across the country, students with mental illness are reported to be self-identifying in greater numbers to disability offices on campus. Still, there are many students or potential students who do not realize that a psychiatric illness is considered a disability in terms of post-secondary education. The term ‘psychiatric disability’ gives you access to academic, financial and often social/emotional supports to assist you through your educational pursuits. If you are contemplating entering college or university or returning to school, I would suggest that you inquire about disability services that are available at your post-secondary educational institution of choice.

What is supported education?

Supported education grew out of the field of special education where students with ‘special needs’ were first identified. Specialized support programs for students with mental illness on college and university campuses are based on the philosophy and principles of psychiatric rehabilitation that focus on a person’s abilities and strengths rather than his or her symptoms and limitations. The goals of psychiatric rehabilitation are to improve the quality of life for persons with mental illnesses so they can be as independent as possible and feel successful and satisfied in their environments of choice. The methods employed to achieve these goals include the provision of both appropriate skills and environmental supports in various milieus. Community housing and employment opportunities were the initial priorities within the rehabilitation field, and only later was higher education seen as an equally important option.

The Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University formulated two main prototypes of post-secondary supported education programs for adults with a history of mental illness: self-contained and on-site. If you are recovering from a mental illness, with the self-contained model, you attend non-credit classes, typically on a college or university campus. Emphasis is placed on personal development, vocational planning and academic upgrading. In Toronto, the city where I live, two community colleges, George Brown and Seneca offer ‘Redirection Through Education’ programs based on this model. Participants in self-contained programs may then return to or become involved with an independent on-site program at the post-secondary educational institution of their choice. Both models share a common goal: to help you achieve access to higher education in a manner in which you can experience success. Success does not necessarily mean completion of a degree, but can also mean taking continuing education courses and learning for learning’s sake. Education is a major part of our culture. Everyone deserves a right to access higher education be it at community colleges, trade schools, universities and virtual universities.

Accommodations

The conclusions of most studies on supported education — and in this area I recommend the Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation for more information — emphasize the importance of educational supports for students with psychiatric disabilities once they gain entry into higher education programs. These supports are twofold: first, relating to the educational institutions’ responsibilities in providing necessary services and reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, and secondly, relating to students’ rights and responsibilities in achieving their educational goals. Minimally, each institution should have a written policy that clearly states their standards of service for students with disabilities and the procedures they have in place to assure reasonable accommodations. Students need to be front and centre in these guidelines. They have a right to reasonable accommodations. They also need to take personal responsibility in managing both their illness and their studies.

Students are typically asked to provide the campus disability office with documentation regarding their psychiatric disability. Professors do not need to know your diagnosis but should be told how the nature of your disability affects your learning in specific courses. Some academic accommodations appear straightforward (e.g., extensions on assignments and extra time to write tests and examinations), while other requests are more complex and need to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis with instructors, to ensure that academic integrity is not compromised. At our university’s Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program, we find it helpful to write a joint letter with the student and the disability service provider at the start of the term, informing the instructor how the student’s disability affects his or her learning. It is instrumental in setting the stage for ongoing dialogue among the various stakeholders.

The nature of your disability is taken into consideration in relation to the nature of the course taught and its objectives, when academic accommodations are requested. For example, some courses require attendance such as at language and science labs or social work courses where class discussion and group presentations are an essential part of the curricula; others, such as mathematics and statistics, are taught right out of a text book and may not require class participation. Some courses are taught cumulatively, where information in one lecture lays the foundation for the next class and being absent on a frequent basis may compromise academic standards. It is best to negotiate academic accommodations prior to the start of classes or at the very beginning of a term. This way, the instructor and the student are made aware of the issues and there are no surprises or misunderstandings for either party. All that having been said, some services and academic accommodations include:

  • annual orientation for students with disabilities

  • an adaptive technology lab for students with disabilities

  • workshops on learning skills such as preparing and writing exams, time management, stress management, etc.

  • separate room allocations to write proctored exams (with extra time in which to write them) peer support groups

  • mentoring programs

  • tape-recording of lectures

  • texts on tape

  • note-takers

  • tutoring

  • extensions on assignments, sometimes above and beyond the end of term

If some of these services and supports aren’t available on your campus, you may consider approaching the disability office to advocate for their inception. The cogs of the wheel may move slower than you would like, but remember that it takes time to build a supportive environment. It was students with disabilities on our campus who began their own student organization to help promote awareness and advocacy for their community. An off-shoot of that association is a self-help group for students with psychiatric disabilities.

So often I meet students with psychiatric disabilities who want to hurry through their education. Ironically, I have found that those students who go slower achieve their goals faster than students who take on too much at once. If you overload yourself with courses, you may find yourself frequently petitioning to have grades removed from your record or financial overwards (e.g., students loans) reconsidered, due to courses dropped. While you may be successful in your petitions, it is a lengthy and time-consuming process that can affect your self-confidence and take time from your studies. You may also find yourself having to petition at the very time that you lack the energy to do so.

Since the illness experience and the education experience are so intimately linked, it is important that you have good coping strategies to manage both. By managing one, you are ultimately managing the other. Taking a reduced course load is one sure way of staying on top of things. Other strategies include avoiding enrolment in morning classes, if that is a problem for you, letting your instructors know your needs when you are falling behind and having someone on campus to advocate with you. Even with supports, you may have to drop a course here and there or perhaps withdraw for a term or a year or more. If you are unwell, you can always return to your studies at a later date. Education is a foundation to build upon. Managing your illness also means you playing an active role in your recovery, knowing when your mental health issues are sufficiently in the foreground that you need to re-evaluate your options, albeit temporarily. Finally, effective coping involves knowing when you are being discriminated against and with whom to discuss your concerns. The important thing is not to give up and not to lose sight of your aspirations, in spite of the hurdles. All the very best to you in achieving your educational goals and attaining your dreams. I know you can do it.

 
About the author
Enid, MSW, EdD, is the founder and Coordinator of the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program (PDP), at York University, in Toronto, Ontario. The PDP is one of the pioneering supported education programs in Canada

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