Frequently Asked Questions by Faculty About Students with Mental Health Disabilities

How do students connect with Mental Health Disability Services (MHDS)?

We see undergraduate and graduate students with on-going mental health issues such as schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorders etc. Students come to us in a variety of ways. They self-identify, are referred by counsellors at Counselling & Disability Services (CDS), faculty, staff, doctors and mental health professionals in the community. The student must provide us with medical documentation in order to become officially registered with our services.

What services does MHDS provide to students?

We are an educational service, not a treatment based service. Most students who come to us are already under the care of mental health professionals in the community. If they are not, and a mental health disability is suspected, we will assist them in finding appropriate services in the community.

When would an Instructor refer a student to CDS versus MHDS?

If you are concerned about a student's mental health and they are not under the care of a mental health professional in the community, then it is best that you refer the student for an appointment with the intake counsellor at Counselling & Disability Services (CDS). The intake counsellor can decide whether the student should be seen by MHDS, and we will help the student find appropriate services in the community. If a student is already seeing someone in the community, then a direct referral to us would be appropriate. The important point is that a student should be referred to either MHDS or CDS as soon as possible. Getting the support needed can make all the difference to a student’s success at university.

Why does a student wait until the last minute to ask for help, especially if the course work is outlined in the syllabus?

We stress to students that all the professor needs to know about their disability is how it affects their learning and what academic accommodations they require.

While confidentiality is respected, students still worry that knowledge of their personal information may be used against them. This issue of self-disclosure becomes particularly problematic at the graduate level where students worry that this information may hinder them from obtaining professional jobs.

Fear of disclosure, worry about being judged, and difficulty accessing academic accommodations in the past, may prevent a student from asking for an extension, deferral or make-up test in a timely fashion. If the student has presented a letter from our office, academic accommodation for deferring the deadline is often appropriate. Many students will present this documentation after the deadline – only as a last resort. Again, consideration for their circumstances can greatly ease the stress and uncertainty they experience.

Many students we see are fiercely independent. They do not want to ask for help unless they feel they need it. Sometimes they feel undeserving of help, especially if they are taking a reduced course load. Other times they may feel intimidated by authority figures and become afraid to ask for consideration.

Students may begin the term not requiring assistance from our office or their instructors but as the work accumulates, the stress can cause their mental health to change dramatically within a short period of time. The end of term can exacerbate symptoms that the student had been managing throughout their academic year. Unlike a student without a mental health disability, the consequences of this stress can not only disrupt their studies, but seriously endanger their health.

Even if a student has requested a deadline extension, their health may prevent them from completing the academic task. An on-going dialogue between the student, their disability service provider, and the professor and/or teaching assistant may be required and is recommended to support the student’s academic success.

We strongly urge our students to put their mental health first. We recommend to our students that they request extensions or defer deadlines as their first priority. Students who have met deadlines throughout the year often resist approaching instructors at the end of the course – even when their health is in jeopardy. Cooperation between the student, professor and/or teaching assistant and disability service provider is crucial in such circumstances.

Not passing judgment, being flexible and open to students with mental heatlh disabilities helps to break down attitudinal barriers. A positive approach will help students become better self-advocates and more successful in their studies.

Why may students with mental health disabilities require academic accommodations?

Despite their best intentions, students enrolled in our program often experience set backs in their mental health. They may be dealing with symptoms, changing medications, or struggling with the side effects of their current medication regime (e.g., drowsiness, nausea, tremors, restlessness, difficulty with concentration and memory). Hospitalizations may result in either short or prolonged absences from university.

Given the episodic nature of many illnesses, academic performance can be inconsistent and does not always reflect true abilities. A student can produce 'A' work one month and 'C' work another. They may participate in class discussions some weeks and not be up to it at other times. As well, students may be absent from class because of medical appointments or because of a temporary relapse or hospitalizations. It is important that they not be penalized for their absences and/or deferred work, if it is disability related.

Common academic accommodations that students with mental health disabilities require are extensions on assignments and extra time in which to write tests and examinations. Academic accommodations are also unique for each student and take into consideration a variety of variables, e.g., nature of disability, nature of course objectives and academic integrity of the course.

We do not ask that students with mental health disabilities be treated more leniently than other students but that they be treated fairly. There are often solutions that are not brought to mind immediately when requests for academic accommodations are made. By discussing academic accommodations with the student and his/her disability counsellor, creative options can arise that do not compromise academic integrity.

What is the purpose of academic accommodation letters to instructors?

Re: Students
Academic letters of accommodation are meant to be given by every student registered with our service to their instructors. This procedure is in keeping with York's Senate policy on accommodating students with disabilities. These letters are typically written early on in the term or whenever the student registers with our office, which can be any time throughout the academic year. They are based on medical documentation we have on file. It is students' responsibility to ensure that faculty and TAs receive the letter in a timely fashion. Students are strongly encouraged to meet with their course directors to discuss the contents of the accommodation letter.

Re: Faculty 
While some professors would like the letter to be written in greater detail, we are not at liberty to disclose students' diagnoses. This is a privacy and human rights issue; students' confidentiality is meant to be respected, at all times. It is the student's responsibility to deliver the letter to you. These letters are meant to facilitate discussion between you and the student in regards to their specific educational needs for you particular course.

What kind of academic accommodations do students with mental health disabilities require?

Students with mental health disabilities require some of the following academic accommodations: writing exams separately with extra time in which to write them, extensions on assignments, deferral of tests and examinations, rescheduling of tests and examinations so that there are not held too close together, tape-recording of lectures, alternate format for course readings, note-takers and tutors.

The important point about academic accommodations for students with mental health disabilities is that they are continuous. A student does not have to be in relapse to need these accommodations. They also need educational supports when they are well. Such supports serve as a preventative measure to reduce stress and to best manage school and their mental health simultaneously.