Assessing an institution for students with mental illness

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One of the saddest things for me as a former school social worker and college administrator is watching a student with an emotional disability fail to make the transition from high school to college.

Under the educational system in the United States, students in public education who have a mental illness are labeled 'ED' for emotional disability in order to qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Under this system, parents, teachers, and counsellors advocate for the student to ensure he or she receives the services and accommodations he or she is entitled to under the law. However, once a student that was labeled ED under this system goes to college, education is no longer a right – it is considered a privilege.

The legal safeguards and rights have changed. The student must now be 'otherwise qualified' to attend college. The disability law that now governs higher education is known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under this law and system it is the student who must act as his or her own advocate. The student is responsible for establishing his own her own history of a disability in order to receive reasonable accommodations under the ADA.

What should we be doing to prepare students for higher education?

Where we often fail our students with mental illness and students with disabilities in general, is teaching them self-advocacy skills while they are still in high school. Many do not know what their disability is specifically, and are unable to articulate what accommodations they might need to ensure success in a post-secondary academic environment.

The first skill they must learn is the ability to self-identify and be comfortable with asking for accommodations from the college. This is especially difficult for students with mental illness because of the stigma associated with this disability.

Only about ½ of the students with a disability self-identify with offices of disability services across the country. This number is far smaller for students with mental illness. Having worked for several years on a college suicide hotline, I listened to the stories of students with mental illness struggle with their disability.

Often they reached out for help when they were about to be dismissed from school. It is incredibly frustrating to witness many of these smart, talented young people fail because they are unwilling to ask for accommodations to help them with their disability.

Setting up reasonable accommodations, scaffolding, and a support network of family, peers, and professionals BEFORE a mental health crisis manifests can lead to better outcomes including the completion of college and the receipt of a degree.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 76% of all 2 and 4 year colleges enrolled students with mental illness/psychological or psychiatric conditions during the 2008-2009 academic year (Raue, & Lewis, 2011). 

Over 700,000 students with disabilities enrolled in Title IV eligible colleges during this time period. An estimated 15% of those students have a mental illness or psychological/psychiatric condition (Raue & Lewis, 2011). This equates to approximately 105,000 college aged students with mental illness or psychological/psychiatric conditions.

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