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Psychiatric disabilities

Teaching students with psychiatric disabilities

Psychiatric disorders occur in about 14 per cent of post-secondary students with disabilities and may result in a range of challenges for students during their academic career. Some of the more prevalent psychiatric disorders include:

  • anxiety disorder
  • bipolar disorder
  • clinical depression
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • schizophrenia

A student’s medical status may fluctuate throughout the academic year due to range of disorders, the unpredictable course of the condition, the types of medication students must take to control the symptoms, and the potentially serious side effects of these medications. Self-perception can be a factor in the student disclosing information. Communication between faculty and student is therefore always recommended so faculty can best understand the individual needs of the student.

Common psychiatric disorders

Schizophrenia is a serious psychiatric disorder that equally affects males and females and can result in extremely serious symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, social withdrawal and decreased emotion. For most people who have schizophrenia, taking a prescribed medication regularly is crucial to their ongoing health.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a neurobiological illness, classified as an anxiety disorder. The individual with OCD often attempts to suppress recurrent, intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety or discomfort. However, ritualistic behaviours (compulsions) still often follow to neutralize and prevent unease. Compulsions may consist of mental rituals and may therefore be unnoticed by others.

Bipolar disorder (previously referred to as manic disorder) is an affective disorder that induces periodic mood swings, from depression to mania, in an individual.

During depressive episodes, the person experiences symptoms such as:

  • changes in appetite
  • emptiness
  • fatigue
  • feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • irritability and anger
  • loss of interest and pleasure
  • poor memory and concentration
  • restlessness
  • sadness
  • sleep problems
  • slow movement and thinking

Manic episodes are characterized by feelings of elation and confidence. The person may then feel like he or she can accomplish great things.

Mania is separated into two types: full mania and hypomania. Full mania may be characterized by a decreased need for sleep, decreased self-control, unrealistic perceptions of ability, irritability, rage, risk-taking behaviours and in more severe cases, psychotic states. Hypomania follows the same behaviours but is not as extreme.

An individual with bipolar disorder can also experience symptoms of both states at the same time, in what is known as mixed state.

How can Student Accessibility Services staff provide support?

It is important for Student Accessibility Services (SAS) staff to encourage students to choose course loads that are manageable based on their understanding of the effects of their psychiatric conditions. There may be, for instance, times when the disorder is such that the student is unable to attend class or submit an assignment on time.

Because psychiatric disorders frequently develop at the age when people are undertaking post-secondary education, the diagnosis can be a new, unknown and frightening experience for students. They may not also be aware of how the disability affects their lives.

Psychiatric conditions are generally not stable and predictable; conditions can vary from day to day. SAS staff should speak with the student to understand his or her individual circumstances.

What can teaching staff do to offer assistance?

Some psychiatric conditions could potentially present symptoms in the classroom setting; it is important for faculty to understand issues that could come up, and how to respond to them. Communication between faculty, the student and SAS staff is always encouraged.

Since medications can cause different side effects, it is important for teaching faculty to be flexible in scheduling. Early mornings can present particular challenges for students with psychiatric conditions that require them to take certain medications at night. For instance, students may have difficulty waking and may even remain drowsy for a period of time due to the effects of medication.

It is important to provide students with handouts or copies of PowerPoint before lectures, whenever possible, so they will have time to prepare for the lecture. Note takers should also be available for students who have a hard time concentrating during lectures.

Finally, when possible, reinforce main ideas. Give cues to the students about important information and review key concepts frequently to ensure there is an understanding among the class.

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