Mentally Ill Students' Guide for Academics

Tips and advice for dealing with students with mental illness

  • Due to stigma, students are reluctant to disclose that they have a mental health issue. A student may let you know directly that they have an issue or they might communicate indirectly through student services like the disability liaison unit.
  • Remember, that you are not there to diagnose mental health issues. If a student discloses their problem to you and you cannot help them refer them onto student services on campus, e.g. Disability liaison unit, counselling service and other health services.
  • Think and reflect on your own attitudes and behaviours towards mental illness.
  • How do these attitudes impact upon how you deal with students during and after a lecture or tutorial or discussion?
  • Try to engage and support your student(s) by actively listening to them.
  • It is important to have a "student centred approach" i.e. work with the student to identify what best suits their individual needs. Check to see if they are okay i.e. how best you can support them academically without singling them out.
  • Concentration problems may cause the student to behave in a challenging manner? Look at his or her strengths. Or assist them to focus.
  • In some cases, students with anxiety may need to leave the setting i.e. have a cigarette break and then come back to the class.
  • You may need to encourage students to access services or continue to use services available on and off campus.
  • Work in partnership with your student to identify strategies to work together to further undertake academic work.
  • University life can be daunting i.e./ attending classes, note taking getting around on campus. Demonstrate appreciation and positive regard. Students can be experiencing loss of function at some point during their studies and may need to adjust to what is going on with them. Be aware that the student may have yet to learn coping skills. May be good to have a buddy system, where someone in their tutorial/lectures, chat and share their knowledge and experiences of the information given.
  • Have an understanding of the barriers your student(s) may be facing and the impact of it on their participation in tutorials.
  • With students who have with memory and concentration and understanding problems try sending them an email of what you discussed and the outcome(s) the both of you want to achieve.
  • Remember to treat students with a mental illness with respect and try not to patronize them or talk (dumb) down to them.
  • Acknowledge that their role as a student is having positive impact/outcomes. Talk about their strengths and areas they need to improve on.
Photo of academic talking with a student
Some students are reluctant to inform teachers about their illness unless they have to.
  • Be consistent.
  • Join the dots. Assist them to focus and make connections between what you are attempting to espouse.
  • Cooperate and let your student be a part of finding the solution.
  • What do you do if your student discloses that they are suicidal or at risk? Do not brush it off as attention seeking behaviour. Refer them onto the student counselling service and lifeline. Generally, you may not be equipped/trained for how to handle such situations or issues.
  • If you have concerns that a student is suffering from poor mental health, you should ask them whether they are affiliated with the DLU and if appropriate, suggest that contact be made with DL (Disability Liaison).
  • You should never ask a student directly about any existing or potential condition. It is better to liaise with a DL officer that is equiped to speak on their behalf.
  • If you feel that you would like more information about a student's condition, then you can contact the DL, who will then discuss with the student whether they would like this information made available.
  • You shouldn't expect that students with a mental condition will have the same motivation as other students. For example it may be that the student just wants to stay engaged in the world in order to get better and it is known that doing intellectual activities csan be an important part of that process. In this sense, it is much about returning to normality as it is about achieving high grades.
  • Mental illness will no always be reported in the same way. If a student is unwell they may not have an objective perpective on their own condition. For example, if paranoia is an issue they may feel that the world is against them and that everyone else is wrong, rather than they are suffering from a condition and should seek help themselves. Thus it may be underreported, especially when it is most severe.
  • Mental illness and learning difficulties can be related. For example, a student with mental illess may suffer from insomnia. This in turn can result in concentration and memory difficulties which affect learning.
  • Treatments for mental illness, such as anti-depression medication, can also have affects on memory and motivation.
  • Some students are reluctant to inform teachers about their illness unless they have to.

Sometimes the student may not know themselves that they are experiencing mental health difficulties.

About mental illness

  • Mental illness doesn't have to be diagnosed for it to be a problem.
  • University students are in the age group (16 - 25) that is most likely for people to suffer from mental illness.
  • Sometimes episodes are one off and do not deteriorate into a full blown mental illness.
  • There is a wide scale of knowledge of a range of mental health diagnoses.
  • The diagnosis isn't the be all and end all, also many diagnosis has different understanding points and different presenting problems or issues.
  • Self esteem and self perception may be low for students experiencing mental health problems.
  • Sometimes the student may not know themselves that they are experiencing mental health difficulties. Individual students may not have social skills.
  • Keep student's issues private and confidential. Questions like "how is your health?" in front of other students and lecturers can cause humiliation and discomfort.
  • Some of your students may not be able to think in a rational manner and leap from one topic to another to another that are unrelated.
  • Lethargy, memory, concentration, hallucinations visual or hearing voices may be some of the symptoms so the student may not able to concentrate on what is being said and they may be in their own mind.
  • Student may be in "Recovery" mode and not have symptoms and are managing their illness well and at other times they may need more support that you can give them in relation to the subject topic in your tutorials and lectures.
  • Mental illness covers a wide range of diagnosis and each dignosis has a different set of problems and challenges. For example, depression might affect motivation whereas psychotic conditions will affect hte ability concentrate and develop coherant thought.
  • Conditions can vary in intensity and duration. For some students, their condition may be well managed and they rarely experience symptoms. Other students will manage their conditionas best they can.
  • Often stress is a trigger and the stress of study and other influences, especially in combination, can cause difficulty.
  • If symptoms are accute, this can affect things such as concentration, memory, mental stamina. Even when symptoms are not accute these things can be a problem to some degree. Sometimes other impacts can have the same or similar affectm such as poor sleep, isolation, estrangement, et cetera.
  • Medications can also have side affects which can impact on the ability to study

About this Guide

This Guide has been written by University of Melbourne students.

It is intended to provide academics with a student perspective on how their condition affects their studies at the University.

Contact Us

For assistance or to report accessibility problems please contact:

Andrew Normand
Web Accessibility Lead
Email: anormand@unimelb.edu.au
Phone: +61 3 9035 4867