Disability Specific Adjustments: Mental Health Condition
About one in five Australians experience a mental health condition in any one year. There are a wide range of conditions and their impact on individual students varies greatly. The types of conditions may include schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and anxiety, and poorly-understood conditions referred to as personality disorders. The most common mental health conditions are depression, anxiety and substance-use disorder.
The onset of a mental health condition is typically around mid-to-late adolescence,and young Australians (18-24 years old) have a higher prevalence than any other age group.
A mental health condition is diagnosed by a mental health practitioner.
Mental health conditions may be transitory or more long standing, with symptoms ranging from mild and episodic to severe and ongoing so that students may require academic accommodations at some times but not at others.
The impact of these ‘invisible’ disabilities might not be immediately noticeable but can include anxiety, panic attacks, limited attention span, fluctuating motivation, and disorganisation. These may be accompanied by unpleasant physical effects, such as rises in temperature, sweaty palms, difficulty in breathing and heart palpitations. Students taking prescription medication may experience drowsiness, persistent thirst, vision difficulties, and problems with coordination. Students experiencing an episode may be either unusually withdrawn or hyper-interactive with others, or erratic in their behaviour.
Impact of Mental Health Conditions
The learning processes of students with psychiatric or psychological disability may be affected in the following ways:
- Students may have frequent or unexpected absences. These may be due to hospitalisation, medication changes, or fluctuations in their illness.
- Students may display rigid thinking patterns and inflexible approaches to tasks.
- Students may isolate themselves from others.
- Students may tend to rote learn or may have difficulty performing consistently or following through on tasks. This can be due to anxiety, and perceptions of inadequacy.
- Severe anxiety may significantly impair participation in tutorials and performance in examinations.
- There may be short-term memory loss which will affect both the ability to recall information and attention span.
- Students may have difficulty following sequences, complicated instructions and directions, and with integrating material from different sources. They may be easily ‘overwhelmed’ by information.
- Students may ask questions repeatedly, return frequently to issues already covered, or repeat things.
- When students are unwell they may be inclined to misinterpret questions, comments, or instructions, or be vague in their responses to questions. Some students may misinterpret non-verbal cues in particular.
- When they are unwell their behaviour can also be perceived as impulsive or unpredictable.
Disability Practitioner Strategies
There are a range of services and equipment that are commonly facilitated by Disability Practitioners as reasonable adjustments for students with Mental Illness.
- Access to copies of peer lecture notes
- Access to recorded lectures or a professional note-taker
- Arranging the provision of specific tutorial allocations
- Access to a Student Access Study Centre
- Provision of regular debriefings during and after practical placements
- Examinations are scheduled for times that maximise student’s energy levels due to health condition, that is morning or afternoon exams
- Arrangement of case management to assist studies and regularly assess progress
As a disability practitioner it may be helpful to be aware of inclusive teaching and assessment strategies that can assist all students. ADCET has identified some specific strategies that may be useful for students with a mental health condition Mental Health Condition Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Strategies