Psychological/Psychiatric Disabilities

Students with psychiatric disabilities present some of the most difficult challenges to the college professor. As is the case for students with other disabilities, this disability may be hidden and, in fact, latent, with little or no effect on learning. Unlike other disabilities, however, psychiatric disabilities may manifest themselves in negative behavior ranging from indifference and recalcitrance to disruptiveness. Such conduct makes it hard to remember that those students have as little control over their disabilities as do students with physical disabilities.

The most common psychological disability among students is depression. The condition may be temporary, in response to inordinate pressures at school, on the job, at home, or in one’s social life. Or it may be a pathological sense of hopelessness or helplessness that may provoke, in its extreme, threats or attempts at suicide. It may appear as apathy, disinterest, inattention, impaired concentration, irritability, or as fatigue or other physical symptoms resulting from changes in eating, sleeping, or other living patterns.

Anxiety is also prevalent among students and may be the transient reaction to stress. Mild anxiety, in fact, may promote learning and improve the student’s functioning. Severe anxiety, however, may reduce concentration, distort perception and weaken the learning process. Anxiety may manifest itself as withdrawal, constant talking, complaining, joking or crying, fantasizing, or extreme fear, sometimes to the point of panic. Bodily symptoms might include episodes of lightheadedness or hyperventilation. Students are susceptible to a myriad of other psychiatric disorders, some of which express themselves in inappropriate classroom behavior or inadequate performance of assignments. Some troubled students who are undergoing treatment take prescription medication to help control disturbing feelings, ideas, and behavior. The prescribed medication(s) might cause undesirable side effects such as drowsiness and disorientation.

In dealing with psychological conditions that impair the functioning of the affected student alone, the principles outlined for students with disabilities in the Overview section generally apply. If the behavior begins to affect others or your course of instruction, other measures may be necessary:

  • Discuss inappropriate classroom behavior with the student privately, directly, and forthrightly, delineating the limits of acceptable conduct.
  • In your discussions with the student, do not attempt to diagnose or treat the psychological disorder, but only the student’s behavior in the course.
  • If you sense that discussion would not be effective, or if the student approaches you for therapeutic help, refer the student to the Coordinator/Director if the student acknowledges a disability or to the campus psychological center or to counseling services, whichever is most appropriate at your college.
  • Promptly refer any behavior by the student that may be abusive or threatening to the college’s proper disciplinary or security channels.