SIP 3.7 Recognizing and Responding to Students with Mental Health Disabilities

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

College student holding his head looking sadFaculty, staff and administrators are becoming more and more aware of strategies and services to support students with disabilities, and on-campus entities like the Access Center ( ) exist to facilitate this aspect of our work. What happens, though, if we encounter a student whose disability is not outwardly evident to us? Some students have “hidden disabilities” that are not immediately apparent but that impact the ability to be successful in college. Mental health issues fall into this category.

If you feel like you have more students suffering from depression or mental, emotional, and psychiatric conditions than you did in the past, you’re probably right. The National Center for Education Statistics finds that individuals with depression, mental, emotional, or psychiatric conditions now represent approximately 24% of college students with disabilities and have become the largest cohort of post-secondary students who identify having a disability (2009). Recent increases in the size of this group are due in part to improved medications that result in symptoms mild enough for them to enjoy the benefits and meet the challenges of postsecondary education. Students with psychiatric disabilities are entitled to reasonable academic accommodations as provided by the American Disabilities Act. Providing effective accommodations allows students equal access to academic courses and activities (

Here are some possible functional limitations that individuals with mental health disabilities may experience, although you should keep in mind that experiences are different for each person, even individuals with the same diagnosis:

  • Difficulty with medication side effects: side-effects of psychiatric medications that affect academic performance include drowsiness, fatigue, dry mouth and thirst, blurred vision, hand tremors, slowed response time, and difficulty initiating interpersonal contact
  • Screening out environmental stimuli: an inability to block out sounds, sights, or odors that interfere with focusing on tasks. Limited ability to tolerate noise and crowds.
  • Sustaining concentration: restlessness, shortened attention span, distraction, and difficulty understanding or remembering verbal directions.
  • Maintaining stamina: difficulty sustaining enough energy to spend a whole day on campus attending classes; combating drowsiness due to medications.
  • Handling time pressures and multiple tasks: difficulty managing assignments, prioritizing tasks, and meeting deadlines. Inability to participate in multi-task work.
  • Interacting with others: difficulty getting along, fitting in, contributing to group work, and reading social cues.
  • Fear of authority figures: difficulty approaching instructors.
  • Responding to negative feedback: difficulty understanding and correctly interpreting criticism or poor grades. May not be able to separate person from task (personalization or defensiveness due to low self-esteem).
  • Responding to change: difficulty coping with unexpected changes in coursework, such as changes in the assignments, due dates or instructors. Limited ability to tolerate interruptions.
  • Severe test anxiety: the individual is rendered emotionally and physically unable to take an exam.

Take a SIP of this: Recognizing and Responding to Students With Mental Health Disabilities

Some teaching strategies that could benefit all students in addition to those with mental health disabilities:

  • Break tasks into smaller parts.
  • If a student is starting to fall behind and become overwhelmed by assignments, ask that they meet with you during your office hours. Provide step-by-step instructions and be flexible and realistic with your expectations.
  • Help students use positive statements about their performance and encourage positive and realistic goal-setting.
  • Encourage gradual social interaction (i.e./ small group work) or allow students to work independently if necessary.
  • Never dismiss student feelings. Do not say “you will get over it” or “it’s just a part of being a college student.”
  • When students approach you about their depression, be willing to listen. If you feel the student is in need of a crisis intervention, file a CARE report (website listed below).
  • Strengthen faculty and student interactions by learning the names of students, encouraging office visits, personalizing feedback on student assignments, and mentoring.
  • Encourage healthy student relationships by creating learning communities or study groups and modeling healthy exchanges when talking to students.
  • If you have knowledge of a MSU Denver student whose behavior is concerning, risky, or potentially harmful to themselves, others, or the community file a CARE report. For more information see this site
  • See this site for a list of resources available to assist MSU Denver students in need of support:

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of Recognizing and Responding to Students With Mental Health Disabilities

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.