Lesson 10: Psychiatric Disabilities

Serving Students with Disabilities
Distance Learning Course


The purpose of this lesson is to increase your awareness of the issues and strategies related specifically to working with students with PSYCHIATRIC DISABILITIES/MENTAL HEALTH IMPAIRMENTS.

By considering and discussing the ACCESS ISSUES in a case study reading, you will develop an awareness of additional strategies and accommodations.

Questions to reflect on while reading the content

What challenges might students with PSYCHIATRIC/MENTAL HEALTH impairments face in your service area? What accommodations might they require?


PSYCHIATRIC or MENTAL HEALTH impairments vary widely; they range from mild depression to chronic disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Negative stereotypes and the fact that these disabilities are typically "invisible" further complicate the provision of appropriate accommodations for students with these disorders.

Students with mental health or psychiatric impairments can be affected in several ways. They may be more SUSCEPTIBLE to the common STRESSORS of college life, involving academic demands as well as interpersonal relationships and living alone or away from home for the first time. Students may have particular problems RECEIVING, PROCESSING, and RECALLING information during times of stress.

Side effects from MEDICATION may also impact ATTENTION, MEMORY, ALERTNESS, and ACTIVITY LEVEL. The episodic and unpredictable onset and recurrence of illness can also interrupt the educational process.

Individuals with psychiatric impairments may be treated with a COMBINATION of MEDICATION, COUNSELING, and BEHAVIORAL THERAPY. Often, there are a variety of MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT SERVICES available on campus. A student with a psychiatric impairment may need to build time into his schedule for therapy and/or supportive services.

TYPICAL ACCOMMODATIONS for students who have mental health impairments include the following:

  • Early notification of deadlines to reduce stress
  • An encouraging, validating environment
  • Extended time to complete forms or tests
  • Materials available in electronic format


The broad range of PSYCHIATRIC or MENTAL HEALTH impairments and the "invisible" nature of the disabilities complicate making accommodations for students with the various psychiatric or mental health conditions. They may have difficulty attending class regularly; they may FATIGUE easily or have difficulty taking notes. MEDICATION side effects may impact endurance, memory, and attention. Students may have particular problems receiving, processing, and recalling information during times of STRESS.

Always remember that disability-related information is confidential. The STUDENT is your best resource for determining what accommodations are appropriate. Flexibility and effective communication between YOU, the STUDENT, and the DISABLED STUDENT SERVICES OFFICE are key in approaching accommodations.


While reading the CONTENT, you considered ways in which YOUR DEPARTMENT or OFFICE might accommodate a student with PSYCHIATRIC DISABILITIES.

Send an email message to the group suggesting accommodation strategies you might use in relation to the student described in the paragraph below.

Your email SUBJECT line should read: Access 10: PSYCHIATRIC DISABILITIES.

"I don't know if one of the students who regularly uses our services has a mental illness, but he exhibits extreme anxiety and may "freeze up" during conversations and occasionally react to a situation with an angry outburst. How can I be most supportive?"

Further Information

You can read answers to frequently asked questions, explore case studies, and access additional resources at The Conference Room, https://www.washington.edu/doit/distance-learning-course-serving-students-disabilities.

(c) 2004 DO-IT. Permission is granted to copy material in this email for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged. Contact DO-IT at 1-206-685-3648 or doit@u.washington.edu