Accessibility Resource Center

Psychiatric Disabilities

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in five people in the United States have some form of psychiatric disability, but only one in five persons with a diagnosable psychiatric disorder ever seeks treatment due to the social stigmatization involved. Psychiatric disabilities may complicate many areas of life, including education. While individual experiences differ, there are some commonalities in the academic experiences of students with psychiatric disabilities. Concentration and focus may be affected; a student's ability to function may vary from day to day; in response to stress, students may experience an increase in symptoms. Students with psychiatric disabilities often successfully manage their symptoms with some combination of psychotherapy, medication, and community support. Below are brief descriptions of some common psychiatric disabilities.

Depression is a major disorder that can begin at any age. Major depression may be characterized by a depressed mood most of each day, a lack of pleasure in most activities, thoughts of suicide, insomnia, and feelings of worthlessness or guilt.

Bipolar disorder can cause a person to experience alternating periods of mania and depression. In the manic phase, a person might experience inflated self-esteem and a decreased need to sleep.

Anxiety disorders can disrupt a person's ability to concentrate and cause hyperventilation, a racing heart, chest pains, dizziness, panic, and extreme fear.

Schizophrenia can cause a person to experience, at some points in the illness, delusions and hallucinations.

Some Considerations

  • Psychiatric disabilities affect people of any age, gender, income group, and intellectual level.
  • Disruptive behavior is not an attribute of most people with psychiatric disabilities.
  • 80- 90% of people with depression experience relief from symptoms through medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. Depression is a variable condition that may fluctuate during a person's lifetime.
  • It may seem like today there are more people with psychiatric disabilities; however, more people are seeking treatment.
  • Be mindful of using terms like “crazy,” “psycho,” or “insane” when referring to students with or without a mental health diagnosis.

Common accommodations for students with psychiatric disabilities are exam modifications, alternative ways of completing assignments, time extensions, recorded lectures, early syllabus, and study skills and strategies training.

Instructional Strategies

The following strategies are suggested to enhance the accessibility of course instruction, materials, and activities. They are general strategies designed to support individualized reasonable accommodations.

  • Include a disability access statement on the syllabus, inviting students with disabilities to request accommodations.
  • Spend extra time with the student, when necessary, and assist the student with planning and time management.
  • Students with psychiatric disabilities have good reason to fear the reactions of others, given the lack of understanding and stigma about psychological disorders in our society. If a student discloses their psychiatric disabilities to you, assure them that this will be kept confidential. As with any disabled student, do not press students to explain their disabilities if they do not wish to do so.
  • For disability-related reasons, students may need to miss class or even to leave the room in the middle of the class. Students will be responsible for the content of any lectures missed, but they will appreciate your understanding and any assistance with filling in the gaps.
  • Allow the student to audio-record lectures.
  • Assist the student with finding an effective note taker or lab assistant if the student is eligible for these services.
  • Clearly define course requirements, dates of exams, and when assignments are due; provide advance notice of any changes.
  • When in doubt about how to assist the student, ask them.
  • Allow the student the same anonymity as other students (i.e., avoid pointing out the student or the alternative arrangements to the rest of the class).