Mental health or psychiatric disorders may affect many aspects of a person’s life and Health Canada estimates that 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness. The onset of many psychiatric disorders occurs during adolescence and early adulthood – the time that coincides with post-secondary studies.
What are the general characteristics of this disability type?
A mental health disability is a broad term which refers to a number of mental health disorders, such as major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. The impact of a disorder in the academic setting will be, for the most part, unique to the individual, however some of the common functional limitations due to a mental health disability are:
- Sensitivity to environmental stimuli
- Sustaining concentration
- Handling time pressures and multiple tasks
- Interacting with others
- Responding to negative feedback
- Responding to change
- Limitations due to medication side effects
- Maintaining stamina
It is important to note that while a psychiatric disorder may be a source of discomfort or distress, it will not necessarily rise to the level of causing a disability. Also, the impact of the disability may vary and the student may not always experience the same degree of functional limitation in the academic setting. Lastly, the fact is that students with psychiatric disabilities have many strengths and can be as successful at the university as any other student.
How does this disability affect academic life and work?
Depending on your disability, there will likely be variance in your symptoms. You may be faring well one term and experiencing acute symptoms the next. You may find managing a full course load to be more challenging at some times. In all instances, at the first sign of change in your health you should consult your physician. Your PMC Coordinator is available to help with academic challenges and you should see him/her as soon as you can.
What general services and accommodations are available to meet the needs of students with this disability type?
PMC services are individualized based on documented need. However, it is recommended that you register in your first term at Carleton, whether you think you will need the support or not. Given the episodic nature of many mental health disabilities, it is best to open a file, establish a PMC Coordinator, and become aware of available resources before the stressful periods during the school year. It is also much easier to complete forms and obtain updated documentation while you are functioning well. Many students with mental health disabilities register with the PMC and only access the Centre on an as-needed basis.
Some students benefit from meeting with a counselling intern at PMC for ongoing support. Others may benefit from meeting with the Learning Strategist for individualized academic skill building. Some academic accommodations may include the provision of a volunteer notetaker in lectures to supplement your own notes. Test and exam accommodations may include writing in a quiet room, supervised breaks and extended time to write tests and exams. To find out more, speak with your PMC Coordinator.
To document a mental health disability, information provided must be comprehensive and current. While other relevant and up-to-date documentation may be accepted, the PMC request for Documentation of Psychiatric Disabilities Form is preferred.
Which health care professional is considered an acceptable evaluator for this disability type?
The documentation can be provided by a psychiatrist or registered psychologist, as well as a family physician familiar with your mental health history. In all cases, the health care professional must have established expertise in the differential diagnosis of psychiatric disorders in adolescents and adults.
What specific information is required for documentation?
The documentation needs to formally establish the presence of a temporary or permanent mental health disability. The specific DSM diagnosis can be provided with your consent only, and is used strictly by your PMC Coordinator to inform relevant supports and anticipate future needs. The documentation needs to describe the ways in which the mental health disability substantially limits functioning or necessitates reasonable accommodation in a university setting – in other words, the functional limitations due to a mental health disability. In addition, there should be information about current treatment including a description of the impact of medications on the level of impairment experienced by the student, or conversely the level of impairment associated with use of the medication. The documentation must include a statement about the expected prognosis of the disability and whether the condition is permanent or temporary. As well, the health care professional should indicate if and when periodic reassessment is needed.
What type of documentation is acceptable?
Documentation that does not meet all of the above requirements may still be adequate to support the provision of interim accommodations. The purpose of this interim period of support is to allow time for a student to seek the required documentation from a qualified health care professional.
To be current, the documentation must describe the functional limitations presently experienced by the student. This is particularly critical due to the possible changing nature of most psychiatric conditions, and as the determination of accommodations is based on an understanding of the current academic impact of the disability. For this reason, the student may be required to periodically resubmit the documentation form to a qualified specialist for reassessment.
Although you must disclose and provide documentation of your disability, the information in your PMC file remains confidential and is handled in accordance with applicable privacy laws. In order to provide services and set up accommodations, your PMC Coordinator will confirm your registration with the PMC without disclosing the nature of the disability.
Strategies for Success
One of the challenges of having a mental health disability is the unanticipated symptoms. You may be feeling well at the beginning of the term and be overly ambitious with undertakings, only to start feeling overwhelmed as the term progresses. It is important to plan ahead to allow the best opportunity to demonstrate your academic potential. The following are some suggestions you may want to consider:
Plan your courses carefully. If you know that you tend to experience greater symptoms at certain times of the year, e.g. the Winter term, consider reducing your course load. You can always take a summer course to stay on track with your program. You may want to meet with an Academic Advisor for help with program planning.
You may want to find out more about courses before you register. Look online for old course outlines, contact your program’s department to connect with the course instructor in advance and discuss the course expectations and requirements. Consider how you learn and how your disability impacts your academic performance (e.g. oral presentations, in-class participation, attendance requirements, etc). See if there are different requirements based on the Instructor or the section for the course and plan accordingly.
Consider the time of day and choose sections based on when courses are offered and when you are at your best. It may be worthwhile putting off a course that is offered at an unfavourable time for you if it will be offered at a different time in subsequent academic terms.
Build a network and use available resources. Get to know the university and where key student services are located. Know who to contact if you have questions. Get to know your Instructors and TAs. Make contacts within your program and courses so that if you miss a class you have someone you can ask about what was covered during a previous lecture. Form study groups with peers to ensure you are staying on track and allow you to ask questions
Mental Health Crisis Service
Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region
Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa (YSB)
Native Youth Crisis Hotline
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) www.cmha.ca
American Psychiatric Association’s “Healthy Minds. Health Lives.” www.healthyminds.org/
National Institute of Mental Health (US) http://nimh.nih.gov
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) www.camh.net
Community Information Centre of Ottawa Database (e-Blue Book) http://ottawa.cioc.ca/
eMentalHealth.ca www.ementalhealth.ca/ (link to resources for local community)
Canadian Mental Health Association – Ottawa Branch www.cmhaottawa.ca/