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Mental Health Disorders

woman looking out a window while riding a bus

Mental health disorders significantly affect the way one behaves, thinks, feels, and relates to others. Consequently, there can be a significant relationship between mental health disorders and academic performance in post-secondary education. These disorders can result in many different symptoms that can either be consistently present, or come and go in between waves of wellness.

Common Characteristics

Mental health disorders significantly affect the way one behaves, thinks, feels, and relates to others. Consequently, there can be a significant relationship between mental health disorders and academic performance in post-secondary education. These disorders can result in many different symptoms that can either be consistently present, or come and go in between waves of wellness. Academic performance usually mirrors these patterns. In moments of wellness, students have the opportunity to participate equally whereas when they are not well, students can have difficulties attending class and taking in information.

As such, students with mental health disorders often require some type of accommodation in college or university. As with other students with and without disabilities, students with mental health diagnoses can enrich the educational experience with their intelligence, creativity, and passion for the material being studied. For reference and further information about the effect of mental health disorders on academic participation and performance, visit Academic Accommodations for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities from the University of Washington.

The most frequently occurring disorders for students are mood and anxiety disorders including depression, anxiety and Bipolar Disorder. Students can also present with psychiatric disorders such as Schizophrenia and Psychosis. Other students may suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, trauma, an eating disorder, addiction, personality disorders or a combination of mental health disorders. Mental health disorders are typically managed with psychotherapy, medication, specific skills training, and lifestyle management. It some cases students may need to take a leave of absence from studies (without penalty) in order to receive proper medical care. Even after being treated effectively, people with mental health disorders are at risk for having a reoccurrence of their symptoms. 

Students can struggle throughout their entire post-secondary schooling with their mental health difficulties, or they may experience episodes at different times throughout their studies. The degree to which academics are affected by mental health disorders varies considerably and can depend on many factors, including treatment, environment, self-care, social supports, time of year (i.e., exam periods, holidays), and stress levels. 

For a description of common mental health disorders and links for more information, please see Mental Health Disorders and Impact on Academic Functioning.

Common Concerns and Struggles

Regardless of the type of mental health disorder, the resulting academic impairments can look the same from one disorder to another. Below are three common areas of concern and struggles that students typically experience.

Concentration and Memory

Students with mental health disorders often express difficulties with their ability to concentrate, take in, and retain information. When extreme, it may impact the student’s ability to learn due to increased tiredness, limited ability to focus and sustain attention, slower processing speed, intrusive or obsessive thoughts, or side effects from medications. The brain centers responsible for encoding and retrieving information can be affected by acute stress, trauma, and depression. Concentration and/or memory deficits can affect the student’s ability to apply themselves for extended periods of time such as when studying or writing exams, and can make their experience in classes difficult. Depending on the severity of the concentration or memory difficulties, taking a reduced course load could be considered.

Productivity

Mental health disorders can result in decreased productivity and difficulty meeting deadlines. Mental health disorders often result in students feeling overwhelmed with feelings of low self-worth and difficulty with organization and time management. In some cases, the very nature of the material covered in class may have an impact on the student's ability to participate fully as certain subjects can trigger difficult emotional responses. In addition, particular programs may have a greater emphasis on group interactions, team projects, and class discussions. Depending on the severity of the traumatic trigger and the mental health impairments, students may need to consider a change in program or taking a semester off (without penalty) to get the needed help.

Stress

Students with mental health disorders may experience an increase or reoccurrence of symptoms during periods of stress. They are also more inclined to experience elevated stress levels as they tend to be less resilient in face of adversity. Stress during the academic year can be dependent on workload, upcoming deadlines, exams, relationship fallouts, and general ability to cope with unpredictable events. Having skills and resources to aid in coping with stress, such as seeing a counsellor or speaking to a learning strategist about time management, will help to minimize the negative effects. There may be times where the increased stress has caused the student to move into a crisis state, whereby it may be necessary to allow for a period of rest and recovery before resuming academic tasks. In these instances, deferments and deadline extensions may be helpful, as well as allowing a student to drop a course without penalty.

Accessibility Services

All students with disabilities should register with Accessibility Services in order to arrange academic accommodations for their courses.  Accommodations are meant to be matched to specific functional limitations of a student’s disability (as outlined in their documentation), in order to provide students with an equal opportunity to participate in the coursework.

Accommodations

Accommodations for students with Mental Health Disorders may include:

  • A Learning Strategist or Academic Coach can help students learn how to manage their time and workload while also managing their disorder. They can assist with helping to create study schedules, teaching productivity skills, and teaching students how to handle academic stress.
  • A note-taker can help to ensure that students won’t miss materials in the event that their mental health disorder interferes with their ability to attend class. This is an accommodation that can be arranged when a student registers with Accessibility Services.
  • A reduced courseload can include fewer classes per semester and can allow for more time for mental health treatments.
  • Modified due dates for assignments can provide more time for a student to complete an assignment to the best of their ability, and can reduce stress if multiple assignments are due at a similar time.
  • Extra time or exam breaks while writing exams can allow students with mental health disorders to breathe and refocus before going back to writing. This can also help reduce fatigue when writing. 
  • Small group or private room for testing to reduce distractions and anxiety related to test-taking.

Documentation Requirements

The following information outlines common documentation requirements.  Visit our Colleges or Universities section and contact your post-secondary school’s Accessibility Office to learn what documentation is required at your school. Requirements can vary widely from school to school, and it is important to learn what specific documentation is required, especially before arranging or paying for an assessment or expecting reimbursement. 

  • Some post-secondary institutions may require a comprehensive assessment conducted by a psychologist or psychiatrist, while others may accept a medical assessment. Increasingly, colleges and universities are allowing students to self-disclose their mental health disorders without requiring an assessment or medical documentation.   However, in these cases some type of functional assessment is usually required.  It is the responsibility of the student to speak with Accessibility Services to determine what is required to access accommodations.  
  • If documentation is required, it should outline the functional limitations that are caused by the disorder and how they apply to an academic setting.  The documentation may also recommend some academic accommodations to help address those limitations.   

Student Support Services

There are a variety of student support services to meet the many needs of post-secondary students, in addition to those provided by Accessibility Services (see above).  Some of the services that may be particularly appropriate for students with mental health disorders are listed below.

ORIENTATION & TRANSITION PROGRAMS

Orientation programs provide opportunities for students to familiarize themselves with campus and student services, and meet staff and other students before classes begin. Transition programs help students prepare for the differences between high school and post-secondary school, anticipate and address potential problems, and provide an avenue for students to connect with school support. 

COUNSELLING SERVICES

Mental health disorders are emotionally and physically stressful and are often difficult to manage. Speaking with a counsellor may help to manage negative symptoms and assist students in coping with the effects of their conditions.

SUPPORT GROUPS

Support groups can be beneficial to post-secondary students by providing peer support and the knowledge that other students on campus are also struggling with similar conditions. This is a good opportunity for students to learn techniques and strategies from other students, and can provide beneficial friendships.

PEER MENTORING

Mentorship programs help introduce students to the school community and navigate the services offered within the school.  Mentors can help familiarize students with new environments and potentially answer questions.

ACADEMIC ADVISING

Academic advisors can assist students in choosing courses and planning their academic paths. For students who are taking or considering a reduced courseload or a leave of absence, this is particularly useful.

Community Support Services

There are a variety of national, provincial, and local organizations in the community to support individuals with mental health disorders.  The list provided here is not a comprehensive list of resources available. Many campuses have programs and offices dedicated to the mental health of their students. Health and Counselling Departments at each school can provide a comprehensive list of resources and recommendations for supports on campus and in their respective cities based upon a student’s condition. 

Support Lines

  • Good2Talk is a free support line for post-secondary students in Ontario: 1-866-925-5454
  • Kids Help Phone is a free support line for teens and young adults under 20: 1-800-668-6868

National and Provincial Organizations

  • The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) provides access to mental health information, resources, and services through their national organization and local community chapters. To find your local chapter, visit Find Your CMHA.
  • More Feet on the Ground  is a provincial organization that has partnered with many Ontario universities to provide information about on and off campus mental health resources
  • Teen Mental Health has mental health information and resources for teenagers and young adults

Local Chapters & Organizations

To find local mental health organizations across Ontario click on a geographical region below.  Please note this is not a comprehensive list of resources. Many communities have additional mental health and addictions organizations to support individuals.  Please contact the Health and Counselling Department at your College or University for a full listing of mental health resources in your community.

  • Western: Windsor, Sarnia, London, Owen Sound, Hamilton, St. Catharines
  • Central: Waterloo, Guelph, Oakville, Brampton, Toronto, Barrie, Oshawa, Peterborough, Lindsay, Cobourg
  • Eastern: Belleville, Kingston, Brockville, Ottawa
  • Northern: Timmins, North Bay, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste Marie