Psychological Disabilities Overview

Psychological disabilities may complicate many areas of life, including education. While individual experiences differ, there are some commonalities in the academic experiences of students with psychological disabilities. Concentration and focus may be affected; a student's ability to function may vary from day to day; in response to stress, students may experience an increase in symptoms. Students with psychological disabilities often successfully manage their symptoms with some combination of psychotherapy, medication and community supports. Below are brief descriptions of some common psychological disabilities.


Depression is a disorder that can begin at any age.  Major depression may be characterized by a depressed mood most of each day, a lack of pleasure in most activities, insomnia, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and thoughts of suicide.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder (manic depressive disorder) causes a person to experience alternating periods of mania and depression. In the manic phase, a person might experience inflated self-esteem and a decreased need to sleep.

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders can disrupt a person's ability to concentrate and cause hyperventilation, a racing heart, chest pains, dizziness, panic, and extreme fear.


Schizophrenia can cause a person to experience, at some point in the illness, delusions and hallucinations. 

Some considerations:

  • Trauma is not the sole cause of psychological disabilities; genetics may play a role.
  • Psychological disabilities affect people of any age, gender, income group, and intellectual level.
  • Disruptive behavior is not an attribute of most people with psychological disabilities.
  • Eighty to ninety percent of people with depression experience relief from symptoms through medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. Depression is a variable condition that may fluctuate during a person's lifetime.
  • It may seem like today there are more people with psychological disabilities, but in reality, more people are seeking treatment outside the walls of state mental health institutions.
  • Common accommodations for students with psychological disabilities are exam accommodations, some flexibility with attendance and assignment deadlines (on a case-by-case basis,) option to audio-record lectures, and availability of syllabus prior to first day of course.
  • Study skills and strategies training can also be very effective.
  • Priority registration is a helpful accommodation for students with psychological disabilities in creating a class schedule to better manage medication side effects, disability-related symptoms, and the demands of school.

Learning strategies for students with psychological disabilities:

  • Inability to screen out environmental stimuli.  Stimuli such as sounds, sights, or smells, which distract you. For example, it may be hard for you to pay attention to a lecture while sitting near a loud fan or to focus on studying in a high traffic area.
  • Possible strategies:  Move away from the fan; ask the professor to shut off the fan during the lecture; ask someone to help you find a quiet study area.
  • Inability to concentrate: You may feel restless, have a short attention span, be easily distracted, or have a hard time remembering verbal directions. For example, you may have trouble focusing on one task for extended periods, reading and retaining course material, or remembering instructions during an exam or a classroom exercise.
  • Possible strategies: Break large projects into smaller tasks; ask permission to take short, frequent breaks to stretch or walk around; ask for a tutor to help you with study skills and information retention; ask for assignments to be given one task at a time or in writing.
  • Lack of stamina. You may not have enough energy to spend a full day on campus, carry a full course load, or take a long exam in one sitting. You may also find your medication makes you drowsy.
  • Possible strategies: Enroll as a part-time student; schedule your classes during your high-energy hours; ask to take exams in sections.
  • Difficulty handling time pressures and multiple tasks. You may have trouble managing assignments, setting priorities, or meeting deadlines. For example, you may not know how to decide which assignments to do first, or how to complete assignments by the due date.
  • Possible strategies: Break larger assignments and projects down into manageable tasks; ask for a course syllabus detailing class topics, assignments, and due dates for the entire semester.
  • Difficulty interacting with others. It may be difficult for you to talk to other students, get notes or discuss assignments, participate in class, meet students outside of class, chat with other students at class breaks, and make friends.
  • Possible strategies: Ask for help finding a mentor or "buddy" who can introduce you around and help you fit in.
  • Difficulty handling negative feedback. You may have a hard time understanding and interpreting criticism. For example, you may get defensive when someone tells you your work isn't up to standards. It's hard for you to figure out what to do to improve. You might want to withdraw from class or even drop out of school because of a poor grade.
  • Possible strategies: Ask your professor to talk with you about your performance and suggest specific ways to improve; find out whether you can make up for poor grades with alternative assignments or extra credit projects; ask your professor to meet with you and your school's disability services counselor to facilitate feedback.
  • Difficulty responding to change. Unexpected changes in your coursework, such as new assignments, due dates, or instructors, may be unusually stressful for you.
  • Possible strategies: Ask your professor for advance warning of any changes in the syllabus; ask your school's disability services counselor to be sure to tell your new instructor about your needs.