Mental Health & College Students

Christopher Sweet September 17, 2021

Recognizing the struggle faced by college students with mental illnesses, Brittany Stone has set out to help students find accommodations and raise awareness about mental health issues among students. Stone is a lecturer in the Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling in the School of Health Professions at Rutgers University, and she joined the Ask About the ADA podcast this month to talk about how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to college students with mental health concerns. On the podcast, we explored the unique aspects of life with a mental illness that have worsened during the COVID pandemic, and we dug into how campus resources do and do not serve students with these conditions. Our conversation touched on the fact that while the ADA grants rights to access and accommodation to people with disabilities, people with mental health conditions are consistently overlooked and underserved.

Mental illness is a serious issue on campus and throughout society, but it can be hard for others to recognize and identify these conditions. As a result, mental illness is often subject to intense social stigma. While not commonly associated with other disability issues, many of these conditions are covered under the ADA. For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and schizophrenia to be covered under the ADA; note that this is not an exhaustive list.[1]

Similarly under Titles II and III of the ADA, a mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities may be a disability, granting ADA protection at school. Although mental illnesses might be hard to see, it is important to remember that these conditions can be covered under the ADA just like any other disability. Often, students do not know that they have rights to accessibility and accommodations, because their conditions are invisible and highly stigmatized; this can lead to them being unwilling to discuss their disability unless absolutely necessary.

Mental health issues often surface for the first time in adolescence and young adulthood, and Stone pointed out that many students first experience mental health problems during college. Students then must seek out care and establish support networks in an unfamiliar environment, and this alone can prove challenging. If students reach a point where they need academic accommodations, diagnosis and documentation processes can be intimidating, and professors and administrators might struggle to understand how to help students if they have never personally experienced the impacts of mental illness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated such existing mental health issues, and the numbers are staggering: the National Association for Mental Illness identified a study conducted across eight English-speaking countries that found that 25% of respondents exhibited clinical signs of mood disorders in the midst of the pandemic.[2] The global health crises may have an even more acute impact on college students, as a recent study from the Ohio State University found that student burnout increased by 30% since the summer of 2020. Now, 71% of students surveyed are struggling with burnout, and reports of anxiety and depression increased during this period as well.[3] These reports should sound the alarm for colleges and universities, but unfortunately, there may not be sufficient resources on campus to help these students succeed.

How can universities help students navigate mental health challenges this semester, particularly during a pandemic? Stone makes several recommendations:

  • First, colleges should consider maintaining virtual learning options, which provide flexibility for many people with various disabilities. Remote learning can be just as helpful for people with compromised immune systems who do not want to risk a crowded campus as it is for students with major depression who struggle to leave their dorm. Although accessibility might not have been an intended goal, online learning offers an approach parallel to universal design, which mitigates barriers to education for people with and without disabilities.
  • Second, administrators should anticipate an adjustment period as students transition from virtual learning isolation back to in-person class discussions. Change can be difficult for many, but people with anxiety and depression could be more likely to become overwhelmed by the sudden change in social and working conditions. It might be reasonable to ease students into the semester with a lighter workload in the first few weeks while they become accustomed to live, in-person classes, lectures, and seminars. As with many aspects of the ADA, however, it will serve administrators well to consider these situations on a case-by-case basis to respect the individual needs of all students with disabilities.
  • Chiefly, Stone notes that ADA accommodations function most efficiently when students and administrators and instructors prioritize clear communication and creative collaboration. Establishing a disability accommodation under the ADA is meant to be an interactive process between all parties so that people with disabilities can have equal access to every space and service available to the general public. Accommodation requests should function as a conversation between students and administrators about how the student is struggling, what they need help with, and what is a reasonable accommodation. Students should not be discouraged if they do not receive their preferred accommodation immediately, and administrators should not completely dismiss accommodation requests. Together, students, faculty, and staff can return to college campuses without compromising their mental wellbeing.

For an even deeper dive into mental health accommodations on college campuses, listen to our full interview with Rutgers' Brittany Stone or read NAMI’s guidance on mental health for college students.

[1] US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (1997). Enforcement guidance on the ADA and psychiatric disabilities.

[2] National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). (2021, March 15). New data on worldwide mental health impact of COVID-19.

[3] Mozes, A. (2021, July 26). Worry, depression, burnout: Survey finds college students stressed as fall term nears. US News and World Report.