Students with Mental Health Conditions

Some mental health conditions, such as manic depression or bipolar disorder, may interfere with the performance of major life activities, such as learning, thinking, communicating, and sleeping. The type, intensity, and duration of symptoms vary from person to person and in each individual across time. They come and go and do not always follow a regular pattern, making it difficult to predict when symptoms and functioning will worsen. Although symptoms of psychological conditions can often be controlled effectively through medication and therapy, some people continue to experience periodic episodes that require further treatment. Accordingly, some people with mental health conditions will need no extra support, others may need only occasional assistance, and still others may require thorough and ongoing support to maintain their productivity.

Signs of Mental Health Conditions

Mental health conditions are generally not apparent. Therefore, faculty and staff are unlikely to know if a student has a mental health condition unless he or she chooses to discuss it. Disclosure is a personal decision on the part of the student that involves many factors including trust, perceived open-mindedness and support of the faculty, security that knowledge of the mental health condition will be kept confidential, and general comfort. In addition, many individuals first develop symptoms of mental illness between the ages of 15 and 25. College students, who fall into this category, may be unsure of what is happening to them, not fully recognize the impact that symptoms are having on their academic or social performance, and/or be unaware of effective treatments and supportive services that are available to them.

Academic Considerations

It is impossible to generalize about the characteristics of all students with psychological disabilities. When asked about how their psychological symptoms affect functioning in school, some students cite difficulty in maintaining concentration. Students who take medications to control their symptoms may experience side effects such as: excessive thirst, drowsiness, nervousness, difficulty focusing on multiple tasks at the same time (especially amid noise and distractions), blurred vision, or hand tremors.  Of course, the strengths and weaknesses of each student must be assessed individually, regardless of the presence of a disability. The student’s ability to perform well in class will depend not merely on the presence or absence of psychological symptoms but on his or her past experiences, knowledge of the mental health condition, and skills for effective coping.

Services for Students with Mental Health Conditions

Because symptoms of mental health conditions vary broadly, as does the level of impairment experienced by each person at any one time, it is impossible to list accommodations that work for all students with psychological disabilities. If a student has contacted the Office of Disability Services (ODS), provided us with documentation that clarifies that he or she has a mental health condition that qualifies as a disability, and requests intervention on his or her behalf, recommendations for accommodations will be written in a student’s Letter of Accommodation (LOA) created by the ODS. The student is then responsible for delivering a copy of this letter to each instructor from whom he or she is requesting accommodations. If a student is struggling but has not provided you with an LOA, you may choose to discuss your concerns with him or her in private and, if needed, to make a referral to the ODS. Like all students, those with mental health conditions may benefit from well-organized teaching and classroom management practices. Best practices include:

  • Approach each student with an open mind about his/her strengths and abilities.
  • Clearly delineate expectations for performance.
  • Deliver feedback on performance, both positive and corrective, in a timely and constructive fashion.
  • Make yourself available to consult with students during regular office hours and through contact by telephone and email.
  • Demonstrate flexibility and fairness in administering policies and assignments.

Some students with mental health conditions may need to take more frequent breaks, have food and drink with them in class (due to side effects of medications they are taking), and/or use testing accommodations, such as extended time and a reduced distraction environment for testing.

Popular Misconceptions About People With Mental Health Conditions

Myth #1: Mental Health Conditions Are Uncommon

Recent estimates by the federal government indicate that 3.3 million American adults (approximately 2 percent) have a serious mental health condition. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one out of every five people in the U.S. will experience mental health condition in his or her lifetime, and that one in four of us knows someone personally who has a mental health condition. In all likelihood, one or more of the college students and faculty/staff you work with will experience a mental health condition.

Myth #2: Mental Health Condition is Something People Choose to Have

It is important to know that mental illness is not caused or necessarily prolonged by any moral weakness. Additionally, it is not something that an individual can merely "snap out of" by choice.

Myth #3: People with Mental Health Conditions Are Likely to be Violent and/or Disruptive

This myth is reinforced by the way people with mental health conditions are portrayed in the movies, television, and news media, as frequently and randomly violent. Data from scholarly research does not support this sensationalized picture of people with psychological disabilities. Research further indicates that students with mental health conditions are no more disruptive than other students. Should a student’s behavior seem threatening or be disruptive to class, it is important to remember that, like all Rutgers students, they are required to meet the University’s Code of Conduct. Therefore, it is appropriate to follow policy recommendations on handling these situations.

Myth #4: Recovery from Mental Health Conditions is Not Possible

For many decades, a mental health condition was thought to be permanent and untreatable. As a result, people with mental health conditions were hospitalized to separate them from the rest of society. With the discovery of various medications to alleviate symptoms of mental illness, there has been a gradual evolution toward providing treatment and rehabilitation services in the community. Long-term studies have revealed that people with mental health conditions show genuine improvement over time and are able to lead stable, productive lives. Recovery rates are sited as ranging from 25% to 90%.

Myth #5: People with Mental Health Conditions Cannot Tolerate Stress

This myth oversimplifies the complex human response to stress. People with various medical conditions may find their symptoms exacerbated by high levels of stress. Furthermore, people vary substantially in what they view as stressful. Some people find unstructured schedules highly stressful, while others struggle with too much regimentation. Some people need solitude to focus and be productive, while others thrive on high levels of social contact and public visibility. Therefore whether or not a mental health condition is present, success in dealing with stress seems to depend most on how well an individual’s needs and daily life circumstances match.