The challenges of achieving academic success with a mental illness

About 9% of all undergraduates in higher education in the United States report having a disability, a percentage that has tripled in the last two decades. This amounts to about 1.3 million students (Wolanin & Steele, 2004). Students with psychiatric disabilities are well represented in this trend, with one national survey citing an 85% increase over the last five years in the numbers of students identified with psychiatric/psychological disabilities (Meyer, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Sharpe and colleagues (2004) cite the proliferation of individuals declaring a psychiatric disability as one of the more significant developments that has occurred in the field of postsecondary disability supports over the past decade. Eudaly (2003) notes that the increasing number of students with psychiatric disabilities appears as a “rising tide” on college campuses nationwide. The increase in students disclosing a psychiatric disability has required colleges and universities to develop strategies to meet the legal requirements of equal “access” of all students under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to ensure student “retention” which is a critical component to the ongoing success of any postsecondary institution.

Disability services professionals, people serving in other student affair roles, faculty, and students themselves have all faced challenges in shifting the culture of college campuses to be both accommodating and welcoming of students with psychiatric disabilities. Focus groups held at 13 schools that represented significant demographic differences queried students, faculty, student affairs staff, disability services providers, and college/university administrators about their opinion(s) on barriers impeding the success of students with psychiatric disabilities on campus (Blacklock, et al., 2003). Not surprising, all groups endorsed discrimination/stigma and stereotypes as the primary barriers. The complex nature of psychiatric disorders and the lack of knowledge about how to serve these students were also identified by staff and administration. Students highlighted lack of access to knowledge about mental illnesses and available school resources, while faculty expressed concern about classroom behaviors (Blacklock, et al., 2003).

More recently, awareness of student mental health issues has expanded greatly in response to a growing number of suicides on campus (NAMI, 2004). However, resources focusing on strategies for the equal access and retention of students with psychiatric disabilities remain few (Sharpe et al., 2004).This Higher Education Support Toolkit: Assisting Students with Psychiatric Disabilities attempts to address this critical gap.


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NAMI (2004) Survey. Arlington, VA, National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2004. Available at mong_College_Students.htm

Sharpe, M. N., Bruininks, B. D., Blacklock, A., Benson, B., & Johnson, D. M. (2003). The emergence of psychiatric disabilities in postsecondary education. National Center on Secondary Education and Transition Issue Brief, 3(1).

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Sullivan, Soydan, A. & Legere, L. (2004). Supported education operations manual. Unpublished manuscript. Boston, MA: Boston University, Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.

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Wolanin, T.R. & Steele, P.E. (2004). Higher education opportunities for students with disabilities: A primer for policymakers. Washington, DC: The Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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