Mental Health Disabilities

Counselling and Accessibility Services has noticed a marked increase of students accessing our services that have diagnosed mental health disabilities. As well, students that come to our office may not yet have a documented mental health diagnosis, but they are evidencing symptoms. These disabilities and/or symptoms have a definite impact on academic performance and interaction with others.

The following information is meant to increase your understanding of these students, the educational implications of their disabilities/symptoms and the potential academic accommodations that can assist in reducing the impact their disabilities/symptoms.

The most frequently occurring impairments noticed in college students are affective disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders), personality disorders (e.g. obsessive compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder), schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorders. Students presenting with these types of disabilities would be eligible to receive academic accommodations to help compensate for the ways in which learning is impacted.

Students who access Counselling and Accessibility Services and receive accommodations because of a mental health disability would have current documentation by a certified health professional verifying their disability. They would also be participating in some form of treatment intervention, either medication therapy or counselling or a combination. With the student’s informed consent Counselling and Accessibility Services endeavors to work in collaboration with mental health professionals in hospitals and community agencies to ensure that students with mental health disabilities are capable of sustaining normal academic stress.

Anxiety disorder in the context of a mental health disability is very different from the type of anxiety most students experience during exam time. A diagnosed anxiety disorder can include panic attacks (difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, sweating and a profound fear of impending disaster). This is an ongoing long term condition that requires treatment.

Similarly, a clinical diagnosis of depression is very distinct from experiencing “the blues.” Clinical depression can be very persistent, lasting months or years, affecting the student’s appetite, sleep patterns, engagement in activities, concentration and productivity. There can be a biochemical imbalance requiring the combination of medication and counselling.

Students who evidence symptoms of a mental health disability, but have never been diagnosed, may be referred by Counselling and Disability Services to a medical doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist for assessment. While a single symptom or isolated event is rarely a sign of mental illness, a symptom that occurs frequently, lasts for several weeks, or becomes a general pattern of an individual’s behavior, may indicate the onset of a more serious mental health problem that requires treatment. Some of the more significant symptoms or indicators of a possible mental illness could include:

  • Marked personality change over time
  • Confused thinking, grandiose ideas
  • Prolonged feelings of depression or apathy
  • Feelings of extreme highs or lows
  • Heightened anxieties, fears of anger or suspicion, blaming others
  • Social withdrawal, increased self-centeredness
  • Denial of obvious problems and strong resistance to offers of help
  • Substance abuse
  • Thinking or talking about suicide

As faculty, providing a supportive learning environment and working closely with Counselling and Accessibility Services will be key factors to the success of students with mental health disabilities or those experiencing symptoms but have yet to be assessed/diagnosed.

Educational Implication of Mental Health Disabilities

The extent to which a mental health disability impacts a student academically is dependent on the extent of the symptoms and the course of the condition. Some of the most common ways a mental health disability may impact a student are:

  • Fatigue
  • Limited short term memory
  • Limited ability to focus and sustain attention
  • Missed attendance
  • Late assignments
  • Course material may evoke a difficult emotional response

Instructional Strategies for Students with Mental Health Disabilities

As members of the Red River College community, you have ongoing and direct contact with students. This places you in a position to potentially identify students who are struggling with personal or academic issues.

As faculty, you may notice significant changes in a student’s work habits, behaviours, performance and attendance such as: frequent absences; low morale; disorganization in completing school work; lack of cooperation or a general inability to communicate with others; frequent complaints or evidence of fatigue; problems concentrating, or making decisions, or remembering things; missed deadlines, poor exam grades; decreased interest or involvement in class topics or academics in general.

People who experience problems such as those mentioned above may simply be having a bad day or week, or may be working through a difficult time in their lives. A pattern that continues for a long period may, however, indicate an underlying mental health problem. These students should be referred to Counselling and Accessibility Services.

Other than referring students to Counselling and Accessibility Services, consider the following as possible strategies for supporting students with mental health diagnoses and/or symptoms:

  • Provide explicit guidelines for assignments
  • Minimize distractions in the learning environment
  • Provide copies of your notes, overheads, Power Point presentations to cover emergency absences
  • Note takers and taping of lecture material may be helpful in ensuring the student does not miss information when attendance and/or concentration is affected
  • Flexibility in deadlines may be important
  • Awareness that material could be emotionally reminiscent for the student; a sensitive approach from instructors goes a very long way
  • Deal immediately with any negative behaviour by peers towards the student
  • Permit students to leave the classroom if anxiety becomes unmanageable

Faculty should also feel free to call Counselling and Accessibility Services should they wish to consult about a situation. Specific student information, however, cannot be discussed without the student’s informed consent.

Academic Accommodations for Students with Mental Health Disabilities

Students with mental health disabilities are expected to meet the entrance requirements of their program and accomplish the core competencies to be successful in their programs. To achieve this, accommodations are provided, under Human Rights legislation, to minimize or eliminate any disadvantage their disability presents. Accommodations are unique to each individual.

Counselling and Accessibility Services makes recommendations for accommodations based on confidential documentation that the student provides.

Some of the most commonly provided academic accommodations for students with mental health disabilities are:

  • Private space when writing exams
  • Additional time to write exams as determined by Counselling and Disability Services
  • Alternative evaluation procedures (e.g. oral exams)
  • Regular tutorial services
  • Provision of a note taker for lectures
  • Reduced course load

For more information about mental health disabilities and the impact on students, please refer to the Canadian Mental Health Association website.

Who to Contact?

Red River College Counselling and Accessibility Services:

  • Notre Dame Campus – D102
    Ph. 204-632-3966
  • Exchange District Campus – P210
    Ph. 204-949-8375