Students with psychiatric disabilities present some of the most difficult challenges to the college professor. As is the case for students with other disabilities, this disability may be hidden and, in fact, some psychiatric disorders first emerge when the student is age 18 or 19, i.e., bipolar disorder with little or no effect on learning.
Unlike other disabilities, however, psychiatric disabilities may manifest themselves in behavior ranging from indifference and recalcitrance to disruptiveness. Such conduct makes it hard to remember that those students have as little control over their disabilities as do students with physical disabilities. The most common psychological disability among students is depression. The condition may be temporary, in response to inordinate pressures at school, on the job, at home, or in one’s social life; or it may be a sense of hopelessness or helplessness that may provoke, in its extreme, threats or attempts at suicide. It may appear as apathy, disinterest, inattention, tearfulness and sadness, irritability, or as fatigue or other physical symptoms resulting from changes in eating, sleeping, or other living patterns. Anxiety is also prevalent among students and may be the transient reaction to stress. Mild anxiety, in fact, may actually promote learning and improve the student’s functioning. Severe anxiety, however, may reduce concentration, distort perception and seriously impact the learning process. Anxiety may manifest itself as withdrawal, constant talking, complaining, joking or crying, fantasizing, or extreme fear, sometimes to the point of panic. Bodily symptoms might include episodes of lightheadedness or hyperventilation.
Students are susceptible to a myriad of other psychiatric disorders, some of which express themselves in inappropriate classroom behavior or inadequate performance of assignments. Students who are dealing with a psychological/psychiatric disability are often receiving medical and psychological care to address the symptoms associated with their particular disorder. They could be prescribed medications that might cause undesirable side effects such as drowsiness and disorientation. In dealing with psychological conditions that impair the functioning of the affected student alone, the principles outlined for students with disabilities in the Overview section generally apply. If the behavior begins to affect others or your course of instruction, other measures may be necessary:
- Discuss inappropriate classroom behavior with the student privately, directly, and forthrightly, delineating the limits of acceptable conduct.
- In your discussions with the student, do not attempt to diagnose or treat the psychological disorder, but only the student’s behavior in the course.
- If you sense that discussion would not be effective, or if the student approaches you for therapeutic help, refer the student to the NMSU Counseling Center (Rm. 100, Garcia Hall, 646-2731) or Student Accessibility Services Director (Rm. 208, Corbett Center, 646-6840) if the student acknowledges a disability, whichever is most appropriate. Promptly refer any behavior by the student that may be abusive or threatening to the Coordinator of Student Judicial Services, 646-1722.