How does mental illness affect my school performance?

Mental illnesses may interfere with your ability to function at school, or they may have no effect at all. If your mental illness is affecting your ability to do things such as concentrating or communicating effectively, you’re probably aware of it. Then again, you may not have made the connection between your disability and your problems functioning. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, educational personnel only need to provide accommodations for limitations that can be directly connected to your disability. You will need to document the types of functional limitations caused by your disability to show your need for academic adjustments. Here’s a list of some of the limitations you may be experiencing. If you have a psychiatric disability, you may have trouble doing some of these things.* Please remember that since that are many different types of mental illnesses, this isn’t a complete list — and that not everyone experiences all, or even any, of these limitations. Here’s how you might cope:

  • Inability to screen out environmental stimuli.  Stimuli such as sounds, sights, or smells, which distract you.
    Example: It may be hard for you to pay attention to a lecture while sitting near a loud fan or to focus on studying in a high traffic area.
    Possible strategies:  Move away from the fan; ask the professor to shut off the fan during the lecture; ask someone to help you find a quiet study area.
  • Inability to concentrate: You may feel restless, have a short attention span, be easily distracted, or have a hard time remembering verbal directions.
    Example: You may have trouble focusing on one task for extended periods, reading and retaining course material, or remembering instructions during an exam or a classroom exercise.
    Possible strategies: Break large projects into smaller tasks; ask permission to take short, frequent breaks to stretch or walk around; ask for a tutor to help you with study skills and information retention; ask for assignments to be given one task at a time or in writing.
  • Lack of stamina. You may not have enough energy to spend a full day on campus, carry a full course load, or take a long exam in one sitting. You may also find your medication makes you drowsy.
    Possible strategies: Enroll as a part-time student; schedule your classes during your high-energy hours; ask to take exams in sections.
  • Difficulty handling time pressures and multiple tasks. You may have trouble managing assignments, setting priorities, or meeting deadlines.
    Example: You may not know how to decide which assignments to do first, or how to complete assignments by the due date.
    Possible strategies: Break larger assignments and projects down into manageable tasks; ask for a course syllabus detailing class topics, assignments, and due dates for the entire semester.
  • Difficulty interacting with others. It may be difficult for you to talk to other students, get notes or discuss assignments, participate in class, meet students outside of class, chat with other students at class breaks, and make friends.
    Possible strategies: Ask for help finding a mentor or “buddy” who can introduce you around and help you fit in.
  • Difficulty handling negative feedback. You may have a hard time understanding and interpreting criticism.
    Example: You may get defensive when someone tells you your work isn’t up to standards. It’s hard for you to figure out what to do to improve. You might want to withdraw from class or even drop out of school because of a poor grade.
    Possible strategies: Ask your professor to talk with you about your performance and suggest specific ways to improve; find out whether you can make up for poor grades with alternative assignments or extra credit projects; ask your professor to meet with you and your school’s disability services counselor to facilitate feedback.
  • Difficulty responding to change. Unexpected changes in your coursework, such as new assignments, due dates, or instructors, may be unusually stressful for you.
    Possible strategies: Ask your professor for advance warning of any changes in the syllabus; ask your school’s disability services counselor to be sure to tell your new instructor about your needs.

*Adapted from Mancuso, L. L. (1990). Reasonable accommodations for workers with psychiatric disabilities. Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 14(2), 3-19.

NOTE: The information contained in these pages is for educational purposes only, and is not legal advice. Individuals should contact the appropriate legal resources for specific legal advice regarding their particular situations.