Universities Can Do Better To Help Students with Mental Illness

Universities Can Do Better To Help Students with Mental Illness

A good friend of mine, Jessica (name changed), was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in September of 2017, the same year she enrolled in university. And, as is the case with many other mental illnesses, her anxiety took over her life.  

Post-secondary students all over the world face mental illnesses that affect their schooling.  Research done at the University of Alberta suggests that half of the student population felt “overwhelming anxiety” within the past 12 months of attending university. In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Jessica shares her experience dealing with anxiety at school as a “feeling of constant worrying that goes away only when she leaves class”.  

After taking some time to review her current situation, Jessica dropped out of school. Psychologist Martin Antony, professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, and author of the Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook discussed the impairment those with anxiety-related disorders can experience:  

  “It is not uncommon for people with especially high levels of anxiety to drop out of school completely or take a leave of absence from school.”

Despite this fact, there has been little research on the relationship between anxiety and quitting school. One study found that out of 201 individuals with anxiety disorders, 49% dropped out of school, with 24% of dropouts attributing their decision to their anxiety. These students often struggle with going back to school and completing their degrees. The main hindrance Jessica faces is the delay in receiving her degree:

“The art program has specialized studio classes where they teach pottery, photography, sculpting, painting, stone carving, things like that. I don’t know how long it’s going to delay my schooling.”

Without being physically present in these classes, Jessica fails to complete her degree requirements.  Inevitably, this puts her behind in finishing her typical four-year degree.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that accommodations can help alleviate anxiety experience at school. In the U.S., students have the right under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to request accommodations such as writing in alternative exam rooms, or receiving longer time for exams.  

However, these accommodations are quite general, and may do more harm than good. Clinical psychologist, Anu Asnaani, at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania explains the importance of meeting the needs of each student. As anxiety and depression based disorders require specialty interventions, Asnaani believes that school administered accommodations will not treat them.

Similarly, Martin Antony agrees that accommodations recommended by schools may help maintain anxiety rather than help students overcome it:

“One of the most powerful ways of overcoming a fear of being around others is to practice being around others. However, accommodations may run counter to this idea by isolating students. Accommodations such as these may help people to feel more comfortable in the short term, but they may also interfere with overcoming fear in the long term.”

Jessica recalls her experience with the counselling and disability service at her university as unhelpful. She received accommodations of lecture notes, a seat with an empty chair on each side of her, the ability to sit close to the back of the room, and alternative exam testing. Yet, none of these accommodations helped reduce her anxiety.

Regarding counselling, disability, and student wellness centers across all post-secondary institutions, Asnaani recommends: 

“If the techniques and therapy that the counselling centers at school administer are not working for the students, then being able to make a referral to community partners is important.  Other resources that students can look at for help or finding a suitable therapist are the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies and Anxiety and Depression Association of America.” 

Inevitably, Jessica enrolled in online classes to slowly continue working towards the completion of her degree. However, this isn’t always a solution, especially for individuals in hands-on programs, such as art. For Jessica, the online classes helped eliminate her anxiety.  She is now able to work on her course work in the comfort of her own home. 

Anxiety therapies often teach their patients how to be their own therapist. When asked about mechanisms students learn in therapy, Asnaani and Antony agree that exposing yourself to the feared situation over time and cognitive-behavioural therapies can help reduce anxiety in students.  

For Jessica, the experience has been life changing.  She often wishes that she had received more support from her school and offers this piece of advice to others in similar situations:

“Take things step by step, you and your well-being are the most important. It’s okay to take time for yourself and there is no rush to finish school. There are other routes to take if you are unable to attend classes, such as taking online classes like I’ve been doing. You are not alone in this situation and there are always people to talk to and resources available to you, whether at the school or even online.”

Fortunately, for Jessica, online classes enabled her to complete some of her first-year elective courses. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of adequate tailored accommodations for post-secondary students experiencing mental disorders preventing them from gaining the education they need for their future careers.

Lucia Chiara Limanni, Contributing Writer 

Image Credit
Feature: Filip Bunkens at Unsplash, Creative Commons
First: Helloquence at Unsplash, Creative Commons
Second: coyot at Pixabay, Creative Commons