Students with Psychiatric Disabilities
Unlike individuals with other types of disabilities, a student who has a
psychiatric impairment may be difficult to identify since the symptoms and difficulties
experienced are not always visible. However, this does not mean those symtoms
and difficulties are any less disabling.
Quite often, students are unwilling to disclose their condition for fear of being misunderstood, stigmatized or discriminated against. It is a common belief that disclosure will have negative
consequences; many students may have already had unpleasant experiences with stigma and misconceptions. There may also be a fear of being viewed as
having an illness rather than being a "complete" person. For example, a person
who has experienced schizophrenia is often seen as a 'schizophrenic' rather than
being seen as a person first. Not only does this sort of labeling make the illness the main identifying aspect of the person; it also has huge implications for the student's self esteem.
Since the first onset of many psychiatric impairments occurs in late adolescence
or early adulthood, there is a possibility that some of your current students
may develop psychiatric issues.
While every mental illness has its own symptoms, there are signs that might assist you to recognize that
the student is experiencing something "different." These may include:
- impaired concentration;
- rapid change in weight;
- sadness and gloom;
- worry and agitation;
- inappropriate behavior;
- delusions (false beliefs);
- grandiose behavior.
Students being treated for a psychiatric disorder often are prescribed large
doses of psychotropic medication. While many prescription drugs have side
effects, psychotropic medications frequently impair concentration and cause
drowsiness, blurred vision, stiffness, shakiness, and a dry mouth. Sometimes the
observable signs of a psychiatric impairment are the result of treatment, not of the condition itself.
Interacting with students
It may be appropriate for you to speak with the student confidentially about your
concerns. You may be the first person to realize that something is not quite right.
Express your concerns to the student in a private location without other student
around to overhear your conversation. However, always leave diagnosis and treatment to the appropriate professionals.
Also, if the student's behavior in class is not acceptable, it is very important
you address that behavior and not let it go unchecked. It is your responsibility to ensure that other students are not disadvantaged due to inappropriate behavior.
You never have to accept behavior that is disruptive to your teaching or to
learning of other students.Practical help with study
There are some practical steps you can take to help a student who has a psychiatric disability to succeed in study:
- Understand the facts about psychiatric impairments. Do not pre-judge or assume that a student is unmotivated or lazy. Quite often the symptoms of psychiatric illness or the effects of medication may affect a student's ability to submit work on time or to sit exams in the traditional manner.
- Ask what support the student may need. Quite often the student will know exactly what specific assistance will make a difference.
- If the student does have periods of poor concentration, suggest audiotaping of lectures in addition to note-taking. This will allow students to revise lecture material at their own pace.
- Assessment time is obviously stressful for everybody and, for many people with a psychiatric disability, stress can trigger an episode. Speak with the student prior to deadlines about appropriate mechanisms that will not disadvantage either the student with the disability, or their fellow students. Try and accommodate the student's special needs as much as possible.
- Quite often the type and level of support needed by students will fluctuate. As most illnesses are episodic, many students may have extended periods where they do not need or want any special consideration. Be guided by each student's ability to cope with academic requirements, not by the diagnosis.
- Try to ensure that students are fully aware of the range of supports that are
available to them. The Counseling Center has a wide range of practical ideas and strategies that may assist students in reaching their full academic potential.
- Perhaps students will need to take time off, or will be admitted to hospital. This does not necessarily mean they need to defer or cancel their studies. Many people, with appropriate support (eg having someone deliver lecture notes) have studied from hospital. If appropriate, discuss this possibility with students when they are well. Again, the
Counseling Center may be able to assist in determining a contingency plan.
- Be aware of your own abilities and limitations. If you are in a situation that
you are having difficulty with, or are unsure of how to assist a student, seek
assistance. The Counseling Center may be able to give you some advice.
- One other very helpful resource for you is USI's ADA Coordinator. The
Coordinator's website can be accessed through the following link:
Queensland University of Technology Counseling Services