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 Disability Support.
- 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 Support, 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 and work together to further undertake academic work.
- University life can be daunting, i.e. attending classes, note taking and getting around 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. Be aware that the student may have yet to learn coping skills. It may be good to have a buddy system, where someone in their tutorial/lectures chats and shares their knowledge and experiences of the information given.
- Have an understanding of the barriers your student(s) may be facing and the impact on their participation in tutorials.
- With students who have memory, concentration and understanding problems, try sending them an email of what you have discussed and the outcome(s) that 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.
- 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 registered with Disability Support and if appropriate, suggest that contact be made with Disability Support.
- You should never ask a student directly about any existing or potential condition. It is better to liaise with a Disability Support officer that is equipped to speak on their behalf.
- If you feel that you would like more information about a student's condition, then you can contact Disability Support, 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. It is known that doing intellectual activities can 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 not always be reported in the same way. If a student is unwell they may not have an objective perspective 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 that 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 illness 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 effects 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 the range of mental health diagnoses.
- The diagnosis isn't the be all and end all. Each 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 may leap from one topic to another that is unrelated.
- Lethargy, memory, concentration, hallucinations or hearing voices may be some of the symptoms. As a result, the student may not able to concentrate on what is being said and they may be in their own mind.
- Students may be in 'recovery' mode, not having symptoms and managing their illness well. 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 diagnoses and each diagnosis has a different set of problems and challenges. For example, depression might affect motivation, whereas psychotic conditions will affect the ability to concentrate and develop coherent thought.
- Conditions can vary in intensity and duration. For some students, their condition may be well managed and they may rarely experience symptoms. Other students will manage their conditions as 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 acute, they can affect things such as concentration, memory and mental stamina. Even when symptoms are not acute, these things can be a problem to some degree. Sometimes other impacts can have the same or similar affects, such as poor sleep, isolation, estrangement, et cetera.
- Medications can also have side effects 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.
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