Surge in students seeking accommodations for mental health disorders

Disability support offices on U.S. college campuses are working to assist a growing number of students who are registering psychological disorders in order to receive classroom accommodations for their mental health conditions, Inside Higher Ed reports. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires colleges and universities to provide “reasonable accommodations” to students with disabilities, which includes students experiencing “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” according to a 2012 guidance by the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). For disability rights advocates, however, mental health accommodations are only one step in supporting students with mental disorders.

Related: With student mental health struggles continuing to mount, colleges seek solutions to increase access, remove stigma >

Spike in disability accommodation requests

Self-reported psychological disabilities are on the rise among college students, leading to a greater demand for mental health accommodations at schools around the nation. At Texas A&M University, the number of students registering for disability accommodations rose from 867 in 2010 to 2,840 in 2020. In that same 10-year period, the number of Texas A&M students who registered for mental health accommodations each year jumped from 248 to 1,178.

The nation’s largest university system, California State University (CSU), has also seen the share of students registering with psychological and psychiatric conditions climb from 6% in 2010 to 29% in 2021. And at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), 14.5% of students enrolled at the health sciences-focused institution are registered with disability services. Nearly 70% of those students are new to student disability services.

Related: Advocates urge higher ed to recognize disability as an identity group >

Additional demand, additional supports

Although students have been seeking support for mental health challenges for years, the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis and its severity, says Ray Murillo, director of student programs at CSU. Many new students are coming to campus with a history of psychological disorders, psychiatric treatment, or psychiatric-related hospitalization, which are scenarios “we definitely weren’t seeing five or 10 years ago,” Murillo explains.

Colleges and universities, in turn, are fielding requests for accommodations like part-time workloads; extensions for coursework; temporary leaves of absence to recover from extreme psychological episodes; and “release time,” which allows students to leave for medical appointments like therapy without repercussions for missing labs or classes.

Colleges are also offering supports to help students navigate some of the financial and academic hurdles that can accompany mental health challenges. Both Ohio State University (OSU) and Pennsylvania-based Point Park University have seen increases in the number of students reporting mental disorders and requesting accommodations. In response, OSU’s ADA coordinator Scott Lissner is working to prevent students receiving Pell Grants from losing their eligibility if they request part-time workloads, while Park Point has added academic coaching for students who are struggling with time management while they recover from psychological disorders.

A call for longer-term solutions

Experts such as Bob Weis, a clinical psychologist at Denison University, encourage campuses to keep the bigger picture in mind. He says that college leaders should recognize that “anxiety, depression, and ADHD are treatable conditions” and ensure that accommodations are used as temporary solutions with a larger goal of helping students get the support, treatment, or medication they need to thrive.

Related: Georgetown expands mental health services for university community >

Ultimately, disability advocates say they hope that colleges will move toward a learning environment where accommodations are virtually obsolete because the approach to teaching and learning naturally serves students with an array of abilities and needs. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one framework that encourages educators to anticipate the needs of learners from diverse backgrounds and abilities, says Amanda Kraus, president of AHEAD and executive director for disability resources and chief accessibility officer at the University of Arizona. Kaus asserts that adopting educational reforms like UDL “will certainly reduce the need for accommodation. And it would probably benefit everyone.”

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