Mental health disorders significantly affect the way one feels, thinks, behaves, 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 periods of wellness.
Mental health disorders affect an individual’s mood, thinking, and behaviour and significantly affect daily functioning. Symptoms can be chronic and pervasive or short-term and transitory. 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 processing information. As such, students with mental health disorders often require some type of accommodation in college or university. 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 psychiatric disorders for students are mood and anxiety disorders including Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder. Additional disorders include Psychosis, Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Eating Disorders, Addictions, and Personality Disorders, all of which may present in isolation or comorbid with another disorder. Mental health disorders are typically managed with psychotherapy, medication, specific skills training, and lifestyle management. In some cases students may need to take a leave of absence from studies (without penalty) in order to receive proper psychiatric care.
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 (PDF).
Regardless of the type of mental health disorder, the resulting academic impairments can look the same. Below are three common areas of concern and struggles that students with mental health disorders typically experience.
Concentration and Fatigue
Students with mental health disorders often express concerns about their ability to focus on, process, and retain information. Due to the symptoms of the disorder or side effects from psychotropic medication, students with mental health disabilities may experience challenges with motivation, fatigue, and concentration. As such, students may have difficulty attending classes, managing their workload, and handing in work by assigned due dates. Depending on the severity of their challenges, taking a reduced course load could be considered.
The symptoms and behaviours associated with mental health disorders can result in decreased productivity and difficulty meeting deadlines. Mental health disorders often result in students being overwhelmed with feelings of low self-worth and difficulty with organization and time management. Depending on the severity of the mental health impairments, students may need to consider taking a semester off (without penalty) to get the needed help.
Students with mental health disorders may experience an increase or reoccurrence of symptoms during periods of stress. 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.
All students with disabilities that impact on learning 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 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, improving productivity skills, and teaching students how to better handle academic stress.
- A reduced course load can include fewer classes per semester and can allow for more time for mental health treatments and self-care.
- Extra time or 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.
- A small group setting or private room for testing can reduce distractions and anxiety related to test-taking.
The following information outlines common documentation requirements. Visit our Colleges or Universities section and contact your post-secondary school’s AS 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.
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 secondary and post-secondary education, anticipate and address potential problems, and provide an avenue for students to connect with school supports.
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 condition.
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 it can provide beneficial friendships.
Mentorship programs help introduce students to the school community and navigate the services offered within the school.
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.
There are a variety of national, provincial, and local organizations in the community to support individuals with mental health disorders. The information provided here is not a complete 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.
- 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 & 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.
- The Government of Ontario provides national, provincial, and communal resources for mental health support. Visit Ontario’s Find mental health support page for more information.
- 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.