How Should Colleges Help Mentally Ill Students?

More college students than ever are asking for special academic accommodations for their mental health issues. But experts are divided on the best way to help them.

According to Andrea Petersen of the Wall Street Journal, the number of students reporting psychological issues to university disability offices is rising. By law, universities are required to provide "reasonable accommodations" for students with mental illness diagnoses. But in practice, these accommodations vary a lot. Sometimes instructors themselves adjust assignments or deadlines for students, and sometimes disability offices mandate other accommodations. And the offices sometimes come into conflict with professors, who want them, in the words of one counseling and psychological services director, "to be a detective to see if the student is telling the truth."

The issue of students exaggerating mental health issues, however, may be secondary. The Journal titles the story "A Serious Illness or an Excuse?," but for many schools, determining how best to serve legitimately mentally ill students may be more important — and even more difficult — than sniffing out malingerers. Some administrators report a tension between giving students the accommodations they need to stay in school and preparing them for the working world. Says David Cozzens, dean of students at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, "There's the danger that we take too much care and when they hit the real world that same kind of support isn't there."

How to support young people while still preparing them for adulthood is a perennial question, whether the youth involved have mental health problems or not. And we should certainly be considering how to extend the kinds of resources that exist in college settings to the so-called "real world" so that people with mental illness can continue to lead fulfilling lives after they graduate. Like many articles on the subject, Petersen's piece points out that better treatment and support services have made it possible for more people with mental illness to attend college — these same people deserve the chance to participate and excel in the working world as well. But therapists sometimes talk about balancing supportive care with challenging a patient to attain new levels of functioning. Universities need to figure out to what extent they can help students by accommodating their differing needs, and to what extent they need to train them to meet the challenges of adulthood.

A Serious Illness Or An Excuse? [WSJ]

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