Resource Guide for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities
For students with mental health conditions, successfully transitioning to college rests on a number of factors. Learn how to succeed.
Published on May 13, 2021 · Updated on April 25, 2022
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- A psychiatric disability is a mental impairment that limits a major life activity.
- Psychiatric disabilities can develop in any person at any time.
- In 2020, over 21% of American adults experienced a mental health condition.
- This guide serves as a resource for college students who live with mental health conditions.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." Psychiatric disabilities, commonly known as mental health illnesses, are common and can develop in anyone at any time.
The National Alliance On Mental Illness reported that 52.9 million Americans experienced a mental health condition in 2020, which is one in five adults or 21% of adults. The ADA covers psychiatric disabilities, which means college students with psychiatric disabilities can access accommodations to learn in traditional learning environments. This guide serves as a resource for college students who live with a mental health condition.
Psychiatric Disabilities Affecting College Students
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition. Anxious people may worry excessively, be concerned with the future, or catastrophize. In general, everyone can feel anxious at some point. But those who experience consistent anxiety or panic attacks may receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
Depressive conditions are the second most common mental health conditions. For some, the level of their sadness determines the intensity of depression. For others, depression presents in more complex ways. Deeply depressed people may lose their skills and abilities and their desire to engage in their schoolwork and hobbies. During depressive episodes, someone may sleep too much, overeat, or undereat. They may lose interest in their daily routines or lose a part of their skillset.
Addictions, otherwise known as substance misuse disorders or substance dependencies, often occur alongside other mental health conditions. Certain behaviors, including drug use, can induce, worsen, stabilize, or be a result of mental health problems, as many people use drugs, including alcohol, to self-medicate. Mental illness and substance dependency can share similar causes, including trauma exposure, general brain composition, and genetic makeup.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD develops from "a shocking, scary, or dangerous event." Some people can also experience complex PTSD, which can develop from repeated stress or trauma. While many people recover from trauma on their own, people who continue to experience "fight-or-flight" and other responses from trauma are often diagnosed with PTSD. Symptoms can include frightening thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks, which are moments in which a person continues to relive their trauma.
Eating disorders include bulimia, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating. People with eating disorders often live with distorted thoughts and emotions about their bodies and food. They may fixate on food and their weight or the shapes of their bodies. Eating disorders may also be related to sensory sensitivities.
Challenges College Students With Psychiatric Disabilities Face
When transitioning to college from high school, disabled students must ensure they have the necessary resources to maintain their treatment plans. Since colleges follow ADA laws and do not operate under the authority of other schools, new college students cannot benefit from access to their high school counselors and IEP plans. They must request an accommodation plan from their college's disability services office.
Similarly, students may need to find new therapists and other medical professionals. They may also need to seek out other forms of clinical support, especially if they have moved far from home.
Elena Welsh, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and author, says students should pace themselves as they transition to college.
"Think of this as a marathon, not a race," Dr. Welsh said. "Try to develop sustainable habits early (such as studying in consistent chunks versus pulling an all-nighter) and refuse to cut corners when it comes to your mental health and wellness."
Bullying is another common problem that can cause or worsen mental health conditions. The stress of academic life alone may also cause some students to develop a mental health condition while in college. These students should contact their school's counseling services for support. Degree-seekers should keep these challenges in mind as they consider schools to ensure they choose the right one.
Things to Consider When Choosing a College
Students living with a mental health condition should consider whether they want to live close to home to help maintain any familial and medical support systems they may have. Students who choose to move away from home to live on campus can request housing accommodations such as a single-room dorm. It's also important to request housing that is an appropriate distance from the necessary services a student might need.
In addition, consider a school's size. Due to smaller budgets and staff, smaller schools often offer fewer services. However, smaller schools may be better able to accommodate individual needs on a case-by-case basis. Students can find various services at larger institutions and may be more likely to meet others like themselves. Although, smaller schools can foster a stronger sense of community. Whether you choose a large or small university, contact each school to ensure they provide counseling centers and accessibility services.
"When selecting a college, think about your experience holistically, rather than just focusing on it as a means to your career goal," Dr. Welsh said. "Consider the community and environment you would be spending time in and determine if it is a good fit for you in all areas of your life.
How Do Colleges Accommodate Students with Psychiatric Disabilities?
Test accommodations include alternative test formats and locations and more time to take tests. Students can also request extra time to complete coursework and fulfill graduation requirements.
Course Waivers and Substitutions
Most colleges allow students with disabilities to substitute or skip classes as long as the accommodation will not fundamentally alter the curriculum.
Students with disabilities can apply for temporary passes to park closer to campus. Early registration is key. Accessible spaces are commonly limited and provided on a first-come, first-served basis.
Scribes or Note-takers
Students with disabilities who find taking notes challenging may request a note-taking accommodation. These accommodations can include guided notes, audio recordings, instructor lecture notes, and copies of notes from a designated note-taker, usually a fellow student.
Word-prediction apps, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), and time management tools are a few examples of assistive or adaptive technology. Contact disability services to learn what type of digital support a school provides.
Adjusted Attendance Policy
Students who have difficulty attending classes due to mood challenges can request an adjusted attendance or hybrid schedule, wherein they learn from home for a portion of the class.
How to Request Academic Accommodations
- Register with disability services. Students seeking accommodations and other support should contact their school's disability services office.
- Provide proof of your disability. You may need to provide a medical report, a letter from your doctor, or a psychological evaluation.
- Schedule an appointment with disability services. Make an appointment to meet with a representative from your school's disability services office.
- Notify instructors of eligibility. After the office of disability services delivers your eligibility confirmation, tell your professors.
- Remind instructors. Remind instructors of your accommodations from time to time if necessary. Keep in mind that instructors are required to provide accommodations.
Tips For College Students with Psychiatric Disabilities
Create Support Systems
While it's important to stay connected with friends and family, take advantage of meeting new people in college. Explore campus clubs, study groups, and other networks related to your major and hobbies to find like-minded people and communities. Dr. Welsh also recommends developing relationships with your instructors to develop the best plan to support your learning and mental health.
Rest and Exercise
College can be hectic and challenging. Pulling an all-nighter may seem tempting, but sleeping at least seven hours each night can help maintain your mental health. Eight or nine hours is ideal. Create a healthy diet, drink water, and move your body regularly. "Not only will these practices contribute to optimal learning, [but] they will also make you less vulnerable to increases in your mental health symptoms," Dr. Welsh said.
Colleges and universities may provide study group access, tutoring, and mental health services. Use these resources to balance your workload and find time management and study techniques.
Monitor Your Health
Monitor your mental health symptoms wherever you'd like, whether in a calendar or journal or on a whiteboard. You can also use mobile apps. Recording your symptoms can help you keep track of your feelings and their fluctuations, helping you know when you need support.
Use Assistive Technology
Assistive technology refers to various software and hardware that make college accessible for students with psychiatric disabilities. Apps, such as Self-help App for the Mind, MoodPanda, and Panic Relief, help students with anxiety. Recovery Record helps students with eating disorders make healthy meal plans and create long-term management systems.
Resources For Students With Psychiatric Disabilities
- Disability Services: Postsecondary institutions must provide appropriate accommodations under U.S. civil rights laws. Students are advised to register with their school's disability services office to receive accommodations.
- Student Services: The student services office provides support to students throughout their undergraduate journey. The office provides services such as student orientation support, housing assistance, and career assistance.
- Financial Aid: The financial aid office assists students who need help paying for college. Students should contact this office to learn about federal and private student loan options, application deadlines, and scholarship information.
- Mental Health Counseling: Colleges and universities provide mental health services for students with psychiatric disabilities through various services. Examples include educational workshops, mental health counseling, and online self-help resources.
- SAMHSA: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration works to improve treatment and rehabilitation services for people who live with mental health conditions.
- MentalHealth.gov: This website offers resources for people with mental health conditions, including detailed information about mental conditions. It also provides resources, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the SAMHSA treatment referral helpline.
- National Institute of Mental Health: One of 27 institutes and centers in the National Institutes of Health, NIMH is a leading federal agency researching mental health conditions.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: NAMI, founded in 1979 by a small group of families, is the largest grassroots mental health organization in the United States. This organization works with lawmakers to advance the equal rights of people with mental health challenges.
Frequently Asked Questions About Students With Psychiatric Disabilities
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common psychiatric disabilities. Another example is schizophrenia, in which a person seems to lose touch with reality. Schizophrenia can affect a person's schoolwork and personal life and cause them and their loved ones distress.
College students also live with eating disorders and substance misuse, among other conditions.
Mental health conditions are common. One in five U.S. adults has been diagnosed with a psychiatric disability. Psychiatric disabilities can be wide-ranging. Some are lifelong, and others disappear with treatment. Many people often experience a psychiatric disability at some point in their lives.
While anxiety and depression are the most common, mental conditions can manifest on college campuses in many ways. Students with mood challenges may engage in self-harming behaviors to self-medicate. Self-harming behaviors may include cutting, eating disorders such as bulimia, and substance misuse.
Students commonly use marijuana, alcohol, and pharmaceutical stimulants on college campuses, along with hallucinogens and prescription opioids. Students with depression and other mental health conditions may also live with suicidal ideation. Other signs of mental disorders include Insomnia and sleep deprivation, as many people with depression, anxiety, and trauma experience restless minds and nightmares.
Postsecondary institutions follow ADA guidelines, which state that a person has a disability if they have a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity." The ADA makes it clear that disability is a legal term, not a medical one, so disability may be defined differently elsewhere.
According to the ADA, a person may be considered disabled if they have a record of an impairment that limits one or more major life activity. Their definition also includes people who have a disability, even if they have not been diagnosed as disabled.
Yes. Under federal disability law, all postsecondary institutions must provide appropriate accommodations to all students with a disability. Accommodations provide equal access to education. Schools that do not comply with these laws may lose government funding.
Higher education institutions do not need to provide college students with the same support they received in high school. They also are not required to provide accommodations that fundamentally alter curricula, services, activities, or programs.
Yes. People with anxiety disorders are protected under the ADA. Anxiety is the most common psychiatric disability in U.S. adults. Many anxiety disorders exist, including social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and panic attack disorders. Due to the nature of anxiety disorders, these conditions commonly limit major life activities, including undergraduate college careers.
Access to mental health counseling and additional accommodations, such as assistive technology and more time to complete tasks, help these students compensate for anxiety symptoms. These symptoms may limit a learner's ability to study and participate as well as their nondisabled peers.
With Advice From:
Elena Welsh, Ph.D.
Elena Welsh, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and author located in southern California. Dr. Welsh likes to write about science-based self-help. She also works with a wide range of clients, including trauma survivors and individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. You can follow along on Instagram at @drelenaw.