Mental health and learning disorders can make success in academic endeavors feel unobtainable for many. In an effort to level the playing field, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made it possible for those with mental health disorders to receive academic accommodations. This gives thousands of college students across the country equal opportunity for higher education. However, many students and their families are unaware of the range of help that is available to support students with mental health conditions. Our hope with this article is to raise more awareness of what kind of academic accommodations are available and how to benefit from them.
Mental health disorders that may qualify for accommodation
- Depression - Depression is a mood disorder that can start at any age. People with depression experience persistent feelings of sadness and a lack of pleasure in activities they once enjoyed. Depression has the potential to escalate into suicidal thoughts, difficulty sleeping (i.e. insomnia), and constant feelings of worthlessness or guilt. Depression affects around 10% of the adult American population, and women make up a larger majority.
- Bipolar Disorder - Bipolar disorder is a chronic mood disorder in which someone experiences alternating episodes of high-energy and sometimes reckless behaviors (known as "mania") with episodes of low-energy depression. While experiencing a manic episode, a person may feel very happy with an elevated self-image, increased productivity, and creativity while requiring very little sleep. During depressive phases, they will likely experience common symptoms of depression such as feelings of hopelessness or sadness that can last for days or weeks. These interchangeable episodes can have a regular pattern, or no pattern at all—and may change quickly and without warning.
- Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) - Borderline personality disorder is a multifaceted psychiatric diagnosis characterized by periods of extreme emotion and unstable mental states. It can be caused by both biological and environmental circumstances, namely childhood abuse or family dysfunction. People with this disorder may experience feelings of low self-worth, rapid changes in moods, distorted perceptions, mistrustful behavior towards others, difficulty managing interpersonal relationships, and challenges developing coping skills to address daily life struggles.
- Schizophrenia - People with schizophrenia often face difficulty in performing routine tasks and have the potential to hallucinate, become paranoid, or experience delusions. Fortunately, those affected by this mental disorder tend to think more practically than abstractly and benefit from following set structures as part of their treatment plan.
- Anxiety disorders - Anxiety disorders include several specific disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalized anxiety disorder. Any of these disorders can cause individuals to experience fear and apprehension in response to thoughts, situations, environments, or people. This can lead them to be distracted from the task at hand due to their inability to concentrate. Anxiety is very common and affects around 30% of the adult American population.
- ADD (also known as ADHD) - Attention deficit disorder makes it hard to prioritize, organize, and concentrate on tasks. This can lead to poor time management, difficulty studying, and missed or incomplete assessments.
Why you may need an academic accommodation
For people with these and other mental health disorders, getting a college education is a very difficult or impossible task. They may struggle with one or more of the following limitations:
- Medication side effects - Some medications used to treat mental health disorders have side effects that can impact academic performance. Some of these side effects include drowsiness, fatigue, dry mouth, altered vision, hand tremors, slower response time, and difficulty with interpersonal communication.
- Lack of concentration - Mental health disorders can make it very difficult or impossible to block out sounds, sights, or odors that interfere with focus. This inability to focus can cause restlessness, a shortened attention span, being easily distracted, and difficulty understanding or remembering directions. This lack of concentration can also make it difficult to sustain enough mental and physical energy to navigate campus or attend all classes.
- Difficulty with time management - A number of mental illnesses or disorders can make it difficult to manage assignments, prioritize tasks, and meet deadlines.
- Test anxiety - Test anxiety is a common symptom for students who have a mental health disorder. A combination of intrusive thoughts and unmanageable emotions can lead to an inability to properly recall information and become overwhelmed with jitteriness and fear while taking tests - even if the student knows the material well.
Types of accommodations that are available
Student support services will be able to detail the specific accommodations that are available at your campus. In general, the most common accommodations are:
- Preferred seating (either near an exit to better accommodate breaks or near the front of the class for better focus)
- Assignation of a volunteer assistant (to help with organization, note taking, and task management)
- Tape recorder use (for recording and playing back lectures)
- Prearranged breaks
- Extended time for test taking
- Exams in a separate space with fewer distractions
- Substitute assignments
- Extended time to complete assignments
Getting academic accommodation
Getting academic accommodation takes the combined effort of student support services and your mental health provider. You'll need proper documentation of your diagnosed mental health disorder and your school will need guidance on what kind of help will be most beneficial for your situation.
If you or someone you know is a student whose grades are suffering because of a mental health disorder, Medens Health is accepting new patients in California and Nevada. Reach out to us by phone or text at (833) 624-5400, send us a message using our online contact form, or to register as a new patient get started here.
The information provided in this blog is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Reliance on any information provided in this blog is solely at your own risk. Always seek the advice of your physician or a qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding your medical or mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who is qualified to give you safe, professional, and ethical advice regarding your mental health.
If you or someone you are responsible for is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should call 9-1-1 and/or take them to the nearest emergency room.