Psychiatric difficulty is a term designating a variety of disorders. Students with mental health difficulties will usually exhibit the following:

  • anxiety disorders
  • eating disorders
  • personality disorders
  • adaptation disorders
  • mood disorders
  • psychotic disorders.

The following factors will help to diagnose a given disorder: clinical psychological symptoms accompanied by anguish; difficulty with functioning as an individual and in society.

Mental health difficulties belong to what is known as “hidden disabilities”. For this reason, persons experiencing periods of mental health problems are often met with incomprehension by other people. Interpreted as a sign of ill-will, lack of talent or downright laziness, their difficulties often provoke mixed responses and anxiety.

Low levels of awareness about mental health problems together with their social stigmatisation make it exceedingly challenging for persons with mental health difficulties to find adequate support at university. The same medical diagnosis hardly means the same set of symptoms: they may vary in intensity and duration according to the person. For this reason, it is vital that teaching strategies cater for each student’s individual requirements.

Possible difficulties

Depending on the specificity of the disorder and received treatment, students with mental health difficulties may have the following problems in fulfilling their academic responsibilities:

  • increased absences due to a temporary relapse of symptoms
  • catching up for classes missed due to a prolonged illness or hospitalization
  • difficulty with attention span, memory, motivation levels and stress management
  • difficulty organising and managing their work: planning activities, setting objectives and identifying priorities
  • difficulty working in a team, anxiety over speaking in public;
  • difficulty coping with the side effects of prescribed medication (e.g. drowsiness, lower efficiency).

Educational support strategies

Classes and exams should be adjusted according to the student’s individual requirements and learning difficulties. When teaching students with mental health difficulties, please make sure that you do the following:

Concerning coursework organisation:

  • Adjust coursework requirements and organisation to the student’s health difficulties. Allow the student to do the following: work in a small group; respond to your questions without speaking in front of the class (reduces social exposure); take short breathers to relax.
  • Allow the student to tape record the class.
  • Distribute handouts well before the presentation or class. Students will be able to familiarise themselves with the topic and contribute more fully to the discussion;
  • Extend submission deadlines, especially for long papers, and – whenever necessary – break them into parts.
  • Allow for absences due to ill health.
  • Arrange for a scheme that will help the student to catch up for classes missed due to his or her ill health. On the one hand, the student should be offered a flexible schedule which changes according to the student’s current health condition. On the other hand, his of her health permitting, the student should feel obliged to do the material as assigned by the teacher. It is vital that you remain consistent when dealing with the student.
  • Remember that the student can have specific and often temporary problems with social interaction. Your consent to be contacted by e-mail may help to resolve the situation.
  • Allow for the fact that medication used by the student can produce the following side effects: drowsiness, slower reaction time, memory impairment, problems with concentration.

Concerning credits and exams:


  • Extend the examination time limit.
  • Adjust the form of examination: from oral to written and vice versa.
  • Both ask the questions and write them down on paper. Hand the questions to the student (oral exam).
  • Allow the student to prepare a plan of his or her presentation (oral exam).
  • Allow the student to take short breaks during the exam.
  • Arrange for a manageable examination schedule.
  •  If the student with learning difficulties has problems mastering the required material, the exam/test should be broken into parts
  • Conduct the exam in a separate room.


  • Respect the student’s right to keep his or her diagnosis secret.
  • Appreciate the student’s psychiatric difficulties and advise him or her to seek professional assistance. 

The material is based on the materials prepared for the DARE 2 project by Edyta Dembińska, MD, psychiatrist, assistant at the Chair of Psychotherapy at the Jagiellonian University Collegium Medicum; consultant in the field of psychiatry at the Jagiellonian University Disability Support Service.

  THE EDUCATIONAL MOVIE - The Tip of the Iceberg