A common psychological disability among college students is depression, whether long-standing or temporary in nature. It may be a response to inordinate pressures at school, on the job, at home, or in students' social lives. Depression may manifest itself as apathy, disinterest, inattention, impaired concentration, irritability, fatigue, or other physical symptoms resulting from changes in eating, sleeping, and other living patterns.
Anxiety is another prevalent psychological disability among college students and may also be a reaction to stress. Students who experience severe anxiety may have reduced concentration and distorted perceptions that interfere with the learning process. Anxiety may manifest itself as withdrawal, constant talking, complaining, joking, crying, or extreme fear, sometimes to the point of panic. Bodily symptoms might include episodes of lightheadedness or hyperventilation.
While many students who have a history of psychological disabilities are stable and show no symptoms, a few may have fluctuations in behavior and performance. Some may experience side effects when increasing or decreasing their medication. These students have as little control over their disabilities as do students with physical disabilities. Note, however, that having a documented psychological disability does not entitle students to disrupt a class or any other part of the university experience. Students with psychological disabilities are expected to adhere to every rule and regulation pertaining to the behavior of all students as detailed in the Tenets of Community Behavior. It is important to acknowledge, however, that most of these students are not disruptive at all. Course participation is as much a part of their goals as for students without disabilities, and with the appropriate planning, students with psychological disabilities can be expected to participate fully in the academic environment.
Psychological disabilities may pose many challenges to effective study. A common difficulty faced by students with a psychological disability is low motivation, or even apathy. Students may also have trouble concentrating as a result of the disability or as a side effect of medication. These problems can be both frustrating and anxiety-provoking for the individual. Instructors should remember that some people with psychological disabilities may be hesitant to disclose their history due to a fear of the stigma that could result. This is true even when a student may be experiencing academic difficulties. Faculty should respect the student's privacy and treat any disclosures of this nature with the utmost tact and confidentiality. The following are some practical ways for faculty to help identified students with psychological disabilities succeed in the classroom. Additional guidelines that may be relevant can be found in the "General Procedures" section.
- Understand the facts about the disability. Do not pre-judge or assume that a student is unmotivated or lazy. Often the symptoms of a psychological disability, or the effects of medication, can affect a student's ability to submit work on time or take exams in a traditional manner.
- Ask what support the student may need. She or he is the expert on what specific accommodations will make a difference.
- Often the type and level of support needed by students with a psychological disability will fluctuate. Most illnesses are episodic and many students may have extended periods where they do not need or want any special consideration. Let each student's ability to cope with academic requirements, and not the clinical diagnosis, be your guide.
- Discuss any inappropriate behavior with the student privately and forthrightly, delineating the limits of acceptable conduct. In your discussion, do not attempt to diagnose or treat the student, but focus only on the student's conduct in the course.
- Nonverbal communication, i.e. tone of voice, posture, eye contact, facial expression, and physical distance between speakers, is the key to talking to students with psychological disabilities. The goal is for the instructor to create an inviting, comfortable setting and an environment of trust.
- If the student has periods of poor concentration, suggest audio-taping lectures to supplement note-taking. This will allow the student to review lecture material at her or his own pace. Preferential seating near the front of the class may also be beneficial for staying focused.
- Exam time is stressful for everyone and for a student with a psychological disability, stress can be especially difficult to handle. Speak with the student prior to deadlines about appropriate mechanisms that will not disadvantage either the student with the disability or other students in the class.
- Students may be admitted to a hospital or need to take time off. This does not necessarily mean that they will need to defer or end their studies. It is possible, with the appropriate support, to continue with academic progress.