Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, p. 21
The life of a university student is definitely difficult, yet students with mental illnesses can have even more challenges to face. The cyclical and varying symptoms of illness as well as medication side-effects often take a toll on how students with mental illness cope at school.
“Many students with psychiatric illnesses have difficulty maintaining academic standards due to their situation,” says Enid Weiner, Program Coordinator of York University’s Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program. “They are often socially isolated as well.”
The Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program (PDP), which runs out of the Counselling and Development Centre (CDC), encourages students with mental illness to become as independent as possible and to maximize their educational experience. Weiner was asked to initiate the program in 1990. Elements of Boston University’s Centre for Psychiatric Rehabilitation as well as more traditional psychiatric rehabilitation models were used to create the PDP, but Weiner ensured the program philosophy was adapted specifically to York University.
The program assists students in receiving academic accommodations such as writing exams separately, receiving extensions on assignments, and obtaining financial support. Yet, managing one’s illness is the key to life on campus — and the PDP can help.
A vital part of a consumer’s approach to education is familiarity with their psychiatric condition, adds Weiner. “If you don’t understand or accept your illness,” she says, “you will have difficulty coping.”
The first step for Weiner was to find students with mental illness and let them know about the PDP. “I told seven colleges at York as well as key hospitals in the area, and linked with the local CMHA,” she says.
But the best results came from the ad she placed in the student newspaper, and soon students were coming to her door. “Within the first six months, I had to make it clear this was a support program, not a therapy program,” says Weiner. “I did some therapy at the beginning, but that got in the way of broadening the program, so I asked students to find their primary therapist in the community.”
Weiner tapped into the services of a learning-skills specialist who would come to the support groups and talk about preparing for examinations as well as reading, writing and studying. Students were also informed there was an adaptive lab for students with disabilities — a place where they could learn about adaptive software, for example, if necessary — a good resource says Weiner, as 40% of students with learning disabilities also have psychiatric disabilities.
In 1995, Weiner established a consumer peer support group within the PDP and eventually hired a psychiatric survivor to coordinate the group. In the following years, Weiner also hired non-consumer student coordinators, but found that wasn’t as effective for the group. “We found that students with mental illness were reluctant to self-identify when meeting with other students or group coordinators without the same issues,” she says.
A self-help group was born out of the initial peer support group. The two groups are completely separate and work out of separate premises on campus. Once students complete Weiner’s 10-week program, she encourages them to move on to the self-help group to receive wider support and mentorship. But Weiner and her staff are always available throughout the year. “It’s important students have continuous support,” she says, adding, “many students will be at school for two to five years or more due to taking a reduced course load — and they learn over time what they need.”
Today, Weiner still makes the campus rounds to increase awareness of the PDP. She says at first she never received referrals from faculty, but that’s changing. “We’ve been invited to a number of classrooms to speak,” she says.
“York differs from every other university in Canada. We have a lot of disability offices. Others have just one,” she says. “It’s good there is a separate program for students with psychiatric disabilities.”
For more information on the Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program at York University, check out their web site at www.yorku.ca/cdc.