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Psychological Disorders

The photo shows a student siting on library floor, staring into space and looking depressed.

Psychological disorders refer to a wide range of mental impairments characterized by debilitating behaviors that persist for more than several months and significantly restrict the performance of one or more major life activities. Examples of psychological disorders include major depression, bipolar disorder (also see Neurological Disorder), anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders (EEOC, 1997). A student with a psychological disability may have one or more diagnoses.

Functional Limitations

In most situations, students with psychological disabilities will not show outward signs of the disability. Nevertheless, psychological disorders are disabling and pose many challenges to effective academic performance. Fear of stigma makes some students reluctant to self-disclose, even when they are experiencing academic difficulties. Students may experience various difficulties that include but are not limited to:

  • Chronic fatigue or pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Undesirable side effects of medications
  • Maintaining stamina throughout the day or from week to week
  • High levels of anxiety or depression, or extreme mood swings
  • Severe test anxiety
  • Problems concentrating, understanding, or remembering
  • Problems managing assignments, prioritizing tasks, and meeting deadlines
  • Difficulty interacting appropriately with others, including participating in group work or approaching instructors
  • Difficulty understanding and correctly interpreting criticism or poor grades
  • Problems coping with unexpected changes, such as changes in assignments, due dates, classrooms, or instructors
  • Difficulty screening out environmental stimuli (sounds, sights, or odors) that interfere with concentration
  • Feeling misunderstood, ignored, invalidated, or stigmatized
  • Difficulty articulating needs
  • Accommodations

    Accommodation needs of students with psychological disabilities vary greatly by individual and academic activity. Typical accommodations for a student with a psychological disability may include:

  • Prearranged or frequent breaks
  • Preferential seating, especially near the door to allow leaving class for breaks
  • Beverages permitted in class
  • Use of audio recorder/note-taker
  • Early availability of syllabus and textbooks
  • Exams in alternate format (e.g., from multiple choice to essay, oral presentation, role-play, or portfolio)
  • Use of assistive technology
  • Extended time on exams
  • Exams in a separate location
  • Teaching Strategies

  • Establish a welcoming climate.
  • Establish standards of classroom behavior for all students. Be consistent, caring, and firm in holding all students to the established standards
  • Address essential academic expectations the first day of class, and repeat them often
  • Employ Universal Design for Education strategies to build flexibility into the course. Allow students to learn and show what they have learned in a manner that is suitable to them
  • Engage students in continuing dialogue to help minimize problems.
  • Speak with the student privately when dealing with a problem, so as not to embarrass the student in front of peers
  • Brainstorm solutions with students. Be prepared to listen and to involve students in finding solutions to their problems
  • Ask students to repeat back to you what was agreed on.
  • Be patient and non-judgmental; avoid sarcasm
  • Embrace diversity to include students with psychological disabilities
  • If you sense that discussion with the student may not be effective, refer the student to the office of disability services
  • Our Sources and Additional Resources

  • U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities:
  • Center for Applied Special Technology:
  • DO-IT Home (University of Washington):
  • Working with College Students who have Psychological Disorders (Texas A&M University System Disability Training Network):
  • Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation: How-to Tips for Educators:
    http://cpr.bu.edu/resources/reasonable-accommodations/how-to- tips-for-educators
  • National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI):
  • Fast Facts for Faculty: Invisible Disabilities in the University (The Ohio State University Partnership Grant):