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Barriers to Education-Mental Health

January 2019


Amelia Dillon

If a student doesn’t ask for help, then no one knows that he/she needs the help. At the college level, professors expect students to be independent and to ask for help if they need it. Professors will typically list their phone number, email address and office hours, so that students know how to reach them for extra support.


What advice would you give students who don’t believe they can attend college with mental health challenges or a psychiatric disability?

I would say that anyone can attend college, regardless of mental health challenges or psychiatric disability. All they need to do is set themselves up for success by accessing the supports that are available at all colleges.

If a student is feeling really hesitant about going to college, they could also consider starting off at a community college, perhaps starting with two classes. This would allow the student to get a feel for the experience of college and gradually work into going to school full-time once this feels comfortable to the student.

What are some ways you suggest students start to build a long-distance support system if they are planning to attend college away from friends or family?

It’s very helpful for students to become familiar with the services and resources available to them in the college, so that they can utilize them when needed. It’s also very helpful for students to develop a connection with the college community. They can do this by joining clubs and/or intramural sports teams. In doing so, they can develop friendships/supports with people who have similar interests.

Students should become familiar with the office hours of the disability services office and/or counseling services so that they can access these supports if and when they need them.

Can you recommend any resources for other students in a similar disability situation to help them with challenges during the application process? During college?

When going to college, it’s very important to become familiar with supports and resources that are available at colleges. Every college has a disability services office/adviser. I would recommend setting up a meeting with the disability services adviser ASAP. The disability services adviser will ask for documentation of the person’s disability, as well as a description of how the student’s disability could impact them in the school setting. This documentation is usually provided by a psychiatrist or therapist. During the meeting, the disability services adviser will determine which accommodations the student would benefit from and are available to him/her.

Other crucial resources are tutoring services. Every school offers tutoring service hours. It’s so important to get off to a good start in classes, since it’s very difficult to catch up once a person falls behind. Tutors can lend very helpful services, since they are familiar with what the teachers are looking for in classes.

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with psychiatric disabilities or mental health challenges should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

That’s really a very personal choice, since every student has their own preferences about environment (small school vs. big school, rural location vs. city location, etc.) However, I would say that smaller schools or campuses can provide a more personal touch. School advisers and disability services advisers are more familiar with the professors and can provide some guidance about which professors are more understanding, compassionate and accommodating to students.

If a student does tour a campus, what are some questions they should consider asking the university?

Students should ask about student-to-teacher ratio, since smaller classes tend to feel less overwhelming for many students and help them to feel like teachers are more approachable. Students should also ask about disability services office hours, so that they are aware of how “present” the disability office services are on campus.

It’s also important for students to develop a social network while at school. A great way to do this is for students to get involved in extracurricular activities or clubs. During a tour, students could ask their tour guide about some of the fun activities, clubs and extracurricular groups that are available.

Should students be up-front with universities about their disabilities during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university?

A student’s application should showcase their strengths. If a student can demonstrate a well-rounded application without disclosing, then it’s not necessary to disclose one’s disability. Upon acceptance to the school and decision to attend the school, students should schedule a meeting with disability services so that they can collaboratively determine which accommodations the student could receive.

If so, what are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, employers and schools cannot discriminate based on a person’s disability. Therefore schools are prohibited from asking whether a person has a disability during the application process.

An example when a student might disclose their disability could be when writing an essay for college application. A student could use their disability as an example to describe how he/she has overcome an obstacle or significant life event, thus demonstrating many of the student’s strengths, such as resilience, perseverance, and determination.

What are the most significant roadblocks you have found students encounter once they attend college? What are some strategies/support resources to get through these situations?

I have seen students encounter several roadblocks when first going to college. One major issue is that students might not review their syllabi right away in order to plan out how to be proactive with completing assigned reading and homework, as well as planning ahead for papers, quizzes, and exams.

Another challenge is that some students have not utilized their supports, such as school advisers, disability services adviser, tutoring services, counseling services and their professors. If a student doesn’t ask for help, then no one knows that he/she needs the help. At the college level, professors expect students to be independent and to ask for help if they need it. Professors will typically list their phone number, email address and office hours, so that students know how to reach them for extra support.

Do you have advice for students on ways to interact with academic advisors and faculty who may not have the specific knowledge dealing with people who have mental health challenges or psychiatric disabilities?

Students should ask themselves the following questions: What skills are needed for going to school? What functional limitations might interfere with going to school? What accommodations are needed to overcome these limitations? What behaviors or symptoms might the teacher observe? What steps can the school/teacher take if these behaviors or symptoms are observed?

The answers to these questions will help students to determine what to share with their professors. It is not necessary for students to share details about their disabilities and diagnoses. The only information that is relevant is those details that will help the student to succeed in the classroom and to receive the supports needed from their professor.

What are ways a college can successfully support students with mental health challenges or psychiatric disabilities? Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

Students should fully utilize the supports offered through the school counseling center. They should also connect with disability services immediately. Following the meeting with disability services, the disability services adviser will send an email to the student that outlines those accommodations the student can receive from the school. Students should then email a copy of the accommodations letter to their professors.

Accommodations could be supports and services such as: extra time to take tests, a separate room to take tests, copies of notes from a classmate, use of calculators during exams, and smart pens that capture everything you hear and write.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with mental health or psychiatric disabilities on a college campus?

Unfortunately, many people do not understand mental health and psychiatric disabilities. I would recommend that students choose carefully to whom they share information about their disabilities, so that they can avoid being the target of stigmas. However, if a student struggles with a diagnosis such as anxiety, it can be very helpful for students to identify peers with those they feel comfortable around and who might be good supports to them when they are experiencing high levels of anxiety.

Many people have disabilities that they choose to not disclose at work or at school, so there is no obligation for students to share their mental health or psychiatric disability. They should consider self-disclosure if they know it will benefit them and provide additional support.

What are tools you see students with these challenges using to succeed once they get to college?

I would recommend that students utilize a planner so that they can organize themselves and plan out enough time to do assigned reading and homework. This can be very useful for students to plan in time to do multiple drafts of assigned papers and to plan enough time to prepare and study for exams and presentations.

Any final thoughts for us?

When a person has a mental health or psychiatric disability, that is just one part of the person. It does not define the person, nor should it be a barrier to any goal that a person has. Going to college allows a person to achieve their career goals and opens so many doors, so that they can have a fulfilling life.


Director, Open Sky Community Services

Amelia Dillon is the director of employment and education services, which involves her oversight of the Supported Employment and Education (SEE) program for Open Sky Community Services. The SEE Program provides assistance to individuals served by our adult mental health programs, to help them identify and pursue their goals related to employment, education, and careers.

Supported employment is an evidence-based practice with the goal of assisting individuals served to find and maintain competitive employment, based on their strengths and interests. It is a promising, evidence-based practice that helps individuals pursue their educational/career goals. From 2013 - 2015, the agency collaborated with researchers at Boston University to gather further evidence in support of the supported education model through a pilot study.

Amelia has overseen the SEE program for the past 5 years, and she is a compassionate advocate about the short-term and long-term benefits of both supported employment and supported education.

Amelia has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and music from the University of Pittsburgh.

In May 2014, Amelia earned a National Certificate in Supported Competitive Employment for Individuals with Mental Illness, issued by Association of Community Rehabilitation Educators.

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