Psychiatric Disabilities


Students with psychiatric disabilities experience significant emotional difficulty that may or may not have required treatment in a hospital. With appropriate treatment, often combining medications, psychotherapy, and support, the majority of psychiatric disorders are cured or controlled.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that many people in the United States have some form of psychiatric disorder. However, only one in five persons with a diagnosable psychiatric disorder ever seeks treatment due to the strong stigmatization involved. It is important to note that not all psychiatric disorders identified in the DSM-IV are "disabilities" as defined by the ADA and Section 504.

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Common Types

Below are brief descriptions of some common psychiatric disabilities.

  • Depression is a major disorder that can begin at any age. Major depression may be characterized by a depressed mood most of each day, a lack of pleasure in most activities, thoughts of suicide, insomnia, and feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
  • Bipolar disorder causes a person to experience periods of mania and depression. In the manic phase, a person might talk excessively, experience inflated self-esteem and a decreased need to sleep.
  • Anxiety disorders can disrupt a person's ability to concentrate and can cause hyperventilation, a racing heart, chest pains, dizziness, panic, and extreme fear.
  • Schizophrenia can cause a person to experience, at some point in the illness, delusions and hallucinations.

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Some Considerations

  • Trauma is not the sole cause of psychiatric disabilities; genetics may play a role.
  • Psychiatric disabilities affect people of any age, gender, income group, and intellectual level.
  • Most people with psychiatric disabilities do not exhibit disruptive behavior.
  • Eighty to ninety percent of people with depression experience relief from symptoms through medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. Depression is a variable condition that may fluctuate during a person's lifetime.
  • Common accommodations for students with psychiatric disabilities are time extensions for assignments and exams, taking exams in a distraction-reduced environemtn, provision for exacerbation of symptoms, provision of advance copies of syllabi, and consultations for study skills and strategies.

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Instructional Strategies

  • Invite students to self-identify on the first day of class by making a public statement such as: "Please contact me to request disability accommodations."
  • Include a disability access statement in the course syllabus such as: "To obtain disability-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids, students with disabilities must contact the course instructor and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) as soon as possible. To contact DRES, you may visit 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign, call 333-4603, e-mail or go to the DRES website."
  • Spend extra time with the student, when necessary, and assist the student in planning assignment sub-phases and in time management by scheduling follow up at specified intervals.
  • Be flexible with deadlines. A written agreement specifying the accommodative extension is helpful in most cases.
  • Assist the student in finding effective notetakers from the class (see Note Taking Services).
  • Clearly define course requirements, the dates of exams, and when assignments are due. Provide advance notice of changes.
  • When in doubt about how to assist the student, ask him or her as privately as possible without drawing attention to the student or the disability.

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