In Brief

The number of university students with serious mental illnesses--such as depression and anxiety--is on the rise, but many college disability office staff, faculty and administrators don't know how to best work with these students on accommodation and adjustment issues, according to a national survey of campus disability services.

Social work researcher Mary Elizabeth Collins, PhD, and psychologist Carol T. Mowbray, PhD, surveyed 275 directors of college disability offices in 10 states to evaluate the offices' characteristics and services. These offices help support students with disabilities, such as by helping them obtain accommodations to ease their academic adjustment. The study appears in April's American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Vol. 75, No. 2).

"My impression is that staff have good intentions of working with students with psychiatric disabilities, but many times they just don't have a clue on what they should do or the resources to do it," says Mowbray, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.

Some disability offices, for example, expressed confusion over what qualifies as "reasonable accommodations" for students with mental illnesses, fearing that some students might take advantage of accommodations such as flexibility in class participation or attendance.

"There needs to be more attention paid to access and retention of people with mental illness in schools and colleges, and that happens in changes in policies, practices and more services, including referral and more mental health services on college campuses," Mowbray says.

In fact, research has shown that 86 percent of students with a psychiatric disorder withdraw from college prior to completing their degree.

To help counter this, Collins suggests psychologists:

  • Boost disability services offices' expertise about mental illnesses, such as by distributing information materials or creating training opportunities for the disability services staff, faculty and students. Indeed, the survey found that colleges have room for improvement. The least common disability service they offered to students with "hidden" disabilities were distributing printed materials about mental illnesses and organizing on-campus support groups for these students.

  • Encourage partnerships with off-campus community agencies that offer support, such as counseling services or support programs that provide education programs and resources to students with mental illnesses.

  • Work with college disability offices by describing how a student is disabled and the appropriate accommodations needed.

While federal laws require colleges assign staff to disability issues, Collins and Mowbray found a large variation in the makeup of the disability offices in terms of size and numbers of staff providing disability services versus student support services. For example, about 40 percent of the institutions surveyed had offices specifically devoted to disability services, whereas others were housed within other departments, such as student services.

Collins and Mowbray are working on subsequent studies to evaluate the extent of these differences among university disability services offices.


Common barriers for staff working with 'hidden' disabilities

The following are the most common issues that 275 surveyed faculty, staff and administrators identified as concerns when they work with students with psychiatric problems:

Problem                                                               Percentage affected

Unsure of how to work with the student                                              56%

Classroom behavior problems                                                           42%

Student attendance problem                                                             22%

Uncertainty that students can handle course load                                19%

Skeptical that students should be at college                                       10%

Source: National Survey of Campus Disability Services